By D.E. Hardy
The end lurks in every beginning, even if only hindsight can find it.
Colonel Alfred Redl puzzles over where he went wrong while regarding the reflection of the Browning pistol before him. He cannot bear to look at the thing directly, though it lies just beyond his fingertips on the hotel desk. In the mirror beyond it, Alfred can see his freshly-pressed General Staff uniform spread out upon the bed. The blouse’s gold collar catches the lamp light, a rich, warm glow that belies its quality. They’ve promised him a military funeral befitting his rank as General Staff Chief of the Eighth Army Corps, and his years of service as Chief of Counterintelligence for the Intelligence Bureau of the Austro-Hungarian Army. And so Alfred sits in his underclothes now, lest his pristine uniform be sullied with blood and bits of brain.
His confession still tastes on his tongue. He admitted to giving the Russians a General Staff manual, an Order of Battle, and the mobilization plan for the Eighth Corps, the last sounding the worst given the recent skirmishes in the Balkans.
But it’s 1913, he reasons. In this modern age of the machine gun, no serious person believes there will be wide-spread wars on a Napoleonic scale again. Advanced weaponry is its own deterrent.
His confession was more redaction than revelation. He said only enough to secure the Browning. The contents of his desk in Prague will reveal the entirety of his crimes. It will take a bit of searching, but the packets of strychnine will be found, as will the ledger of his debts—50,000 crowns in total. Intelligence agents will unearth the ledger of his income, sales to Russia and Italy, even France. They will find his catalog of bribes and the draft letters to Stephan. They will crack the ersatz column which hides his photography equipment and a folio of sensitive military documents—plus the other envelope, the one with personal photographs. It’s hard to guess which will shock more. Regardless, Alfred trusts they will work out the narrative. It’s complex, but not complicated. When the full weight of his crimes comes to light, they will regret affording him the dignity of an officer’s suicide.
Head in hands, Alfred weighs and struggles. His fog of a mind cannot quite fully form the question, how did it come to this, but his brain chews on it all the same. His shoulders tense; the room chills. Outthinking, outmaneuvering. That’s his way. But now he is stuck, just the Browning and he, with scarcely more than an hour left to ruminate on precisely where his end began.
It began with an envelope.
Sent to one “Herr Nikon Nizetas,” via general delivery in Vienna, the envelope contained 6,000 crowns and the names of two known spies. Alfred should have sent a courier to retrieve it at once. But he’d been so busy with letters back and forth with Stephan that the envelope slipped his mind entirely. Weeks passed. The envelope idled, caught the attention of the postmaster and ultimately the Intelligence Bureau.
The irony? The idea for general delivery surveillance was Alfred’s. One of his most successful programs, actually.
A trap was set by Major Ronge who was perfect for the job. Alfred had trained him, after all. The major stationed two agents in the post office lobby. Success was just a matter of patience.
Or rather, those are the events Alfred deduced later.
Meanwhile, the unpleasantness with Stephan grew. He would not listen to reason. Alfred fumed. An allowance, an apartment, and then a horse—the most recent gift, an auto costing nearly 20,000 crowns. Nothing sated Stephan’s wanderlust. Now he wrote no gift will suffice. Alfred will just have to understand. But Alfred did not understand and made for Vienna. Face to face, Stephan would not be able to spurn him.
At the Hotel Klomser, room No. 1, like always, they drank champagne, reminisced. Alfred launched into his plea, Stephan interrupted. “I’ve made a horrible mistake,” he began. A story unfolded. There were gambling debts. Apologies mounted. The girl meant nothing, Stephan insisted. Alfred cooed and hugged and agreed to help. The waiting envelope and its ample crowns sprang to mind. A bargain was struck. The rest of the evening took its usual shape.
It was sloppy, really, to pick up the envelope himself. But there was no time for a courier, and he had promised Stephan. Their reunion colored reality too rosily. Alfred felt alive, like Atlas tenderly picking apples, having duped mighty Heracles into holding the world for him, and so he risked it.
The post office lobby was empty. His concern unfounded. Luck is for the lucky, Alfred mused, not yet realizing that, at least, on that day the lucky were the intelligence agents who came back from their break just after Alfred had left, who dashed to the street to hail the cab Alfred had just exited, who discovered the sheath of a letter opener lying in the floor well, and who were directed to the Klomser where they hid behind newspapers near the front desk while the clerk asked patron after patron about the sheath.
Or such is the story Alfred’s worked out.
When Alfred descended for dinner, the clerk offered him the sheath.
“There it is,” he responded unthinkingly. “How wonderful. Thank you.”
The clerk glanced sideways as he handed the sheath over. Alfred realized too late the impossibility of its presence. He was not halfway to the door before two sets of hands were upon him.
It began with a camera.
Photographs littered the table between the Russian and Alfred. As the Russian talked, Alfred sifted through the images. Their tale was not subtle. The lengths they must have taken —the photographs spanned years, cities. Some captured memories so remote he scarcely recalled the men pictured. Others appeared to have been taken from inside his Vienna apartment. The vacancy next door. They must have buried a camera in the shared wall, poked a hole in the plaster on his side, one too small to notice. Masterfully done, really.
Alfred considered trajectories. Best case scenario, dishonorable discharge and a life of shame and poverty. Worst case, someone remembered there were laws and capital punishments about such things.
A deal must be cut. The Russian named a price: a manual.
“But I must be compensated,” Alfred asserted. “It’s not a clean quid pro quo. The risk is all on my end.”
He named a large sum.
“You overstate your hand, Captain,” the Russian countered, “but we are not barbarians. We know your debts are considerable. You are useless to us in a debtor’s prison. We will buy as much information as you have to sell.”
A one-time exchange was discussed, photographs with negatives for the manual. The pair stood over the table in silence a moment before Alfred ventured the question that nagged.
“How,” he asked, pausing lest his voice betray him, “How did I come to your attention?”
“We generally monitor intelligence officers, especially those with large debts. Your bureau does the same, of course. Eventually, you would have caught someone’s attention, but you caught mine because we have a mutual friend.”
Alfred cocked his head.
Alfred pursed his lips.
“I knew about you even before your General Staff days,” the Russian explained cockily. “I just had to sit and wait for you to rise—”
“I understand,” Alfred cut in. This wasn’t a sophisticated play. He would not suffer gloating. “Well, there is no choice then.”
“There is always a choice,” the Russian offered. “As I see it, you have two.” The man leaned forward, his tone earnest, “I say this as one soldier to another. There’s always honor.”
Alfred shifted his weight. His leg rubbed against his side-arm. Heavens, Alfred rolled his eyes. How melodramatic. The Russians only wanted a low-level procedural manual. He’d read them all. There’s not much to them. It would be nothing for him to hand one over and be done with this nonsense.
Besides, his career was in full bloom. He was highly decorated, recently promoted and still rising. The bureau had modernized its technology because of him. The empire led the world in espionage because of him. And who could have handled the Carina affair better than he? It would be downright irresponsible to give it all up now. There was still so much more he could achieve. And this Russian’s ill-defined notion of honor was too simple. Besides, didn’t honor begin with a duty to one’s self, first and foremost?
A deal was struck, but only later did Alfred realize there was no such thing as one time. What they had on him originally was nothing to what they had on him now.
It began with a goodbye.
A dinner in honor of his promotion to the Intelligence Bureau, held the night before he was to leave for Vienna. Colonel Schlesinger hosted the festivities, an evening at Madame Bibiana’s—dinner, girls, and cards. Every captain in his regiment planned to attend, more than a few majors as well. Alfred was delighted. The event felt like the culmination of his efforts, a graduation of sorts.
The inevitability of brothels continually annoyed though. In smaller garrison towns, officers just snuck local girls into their quarters. It was all very hush-hush, private, much easier for Alfred to navigate. But in cities like Lemberg with large garrisons, nights like tonight were unavoidable.
Thank heavens for Mary, he thought on the cab ride over. She was a gift. A simple, skinny girl, their encounters were all alike, and she never questioned why. Candles snuffed, Alfred would sit in a chair, eyes dreamily shut. His mantra for these evenings: a mouth is a mouth is a mouth.
Madame Bibiana greeted Alfred and his fellow officers in the front hall. She was all smiles and feathers as she ushered them into her parlor decorated in a garishly executed second-empire style in which the Burgundy damask wallpaper was so poorly hung that the pattern ran a touch diagonally and the cherubs encrusting the settees were so grossly carved that the room took on a rather demonic quality. Women posed among the furniture like living statues. Alfred scanned the room. No Mary. Best to buy time and flirt with someone his purported type, adolescent and puerile. An old trick of his—having a type—so that when his fellow officers would kid him that he had naughty tastes, Alfred could just smirk, hawkish eyes aglow, and let his comrades assume his appetite was for boyish girls.
A few more girls entered, but still no Mary. Madame Bibiana approached. “Captain Redl, I do so regret to say that Mary will not be in attendance this evening.” Alfred was silent for longer than was social. Madame Bibiana adjusted her gloves. “Please meet Juliana. Isn’t she lovely?” Alfred kissed the hand of the buxom brunette. His mouth puckered with concern, which he tried to play off as discernment. Madame Bibiana whispered, “And such an ass, a ripe, round peach.”
Precisely, Alfred fretted.
Drinks blurred into dinner. The room filled with dissonant sounds of raucous laughter, clinking stemware, and utensils tapping plates. Glasses of wine were chased with more glasses of wine. Alfred’s mind swam in it. Pairs disappeared through doors. Alfred inwardly sighed, steeled himself to just get the damn thing done with.
Later, he replayed the evening. He was clumsy, but he finished the job. Juliana probably suspected nothing. Besides, she had seen how much he drank and would surely blame that for any oddities. At dawn, when he left to catch the first train, an eerie sense of eyes on his back compelled him to turn toward the house. And he was not wrong. Madame Bibiana stood watching from an upstairs window. She nodded and slowly drew the curtains. Alfred’s eyes flinched as his mind calculated. Most likely, it was nothing.
It began with a con.
Fresh from cadet school, Alfred resolved that his superiors would no longer dismiss him as irrelevant. A General Staff uniform waited for him, he just knew it. His goal was clear, but the path hazy.
Alfred played anthropologist, positioning himself in corners and back rows, eating on the fringes, always watching. At night, he chronicled myriad topics, hiding his notebook in a slit between the mattress casing and its hay-sack. Marginalia abounded: “officers above captain smoke cigars; below, cigarettes” and “snail forks have two tines; oyster three.” Within six months, he penned a veritable encyclopedia on the social patterns and habits of those above him.
There were three paths for successful officer careers, he soon learned. The easiest road was reserved for the vons. Their commissions seemed to drop from the ether. Titles were hard to fake though, although Alfred considered it. From time to time, he dreamily played with his monogram, writing the “V” of his middle name, Viktor, slightly smaller than the “A” and “R”. Perhaps one day, someone would be fooled into calling him Alfred von Redl.
The second path involved money. Commissions were always for sale to those with ready cash, but Alfred had none. Any commission he received would have to be earned, which left him at the mercy of the third path: merit. His promotions would be based on test scores, good performance, and ability. Alfred took heart; he was blessedly long in these.
At night, he read military manual after manual until he had read them all. Few could surpass his regulatory knowledge. Yet, that year he was twice passed over for promotion, first for an utter dunce of a count who was five years his junior, and then for a wealthy industrialist’s pudgy son. If merit could garner results, they came too slowly.
Alfred resolved to carve his own path.
It took two afternoons of traversing the local ghetto before he found a moneylender willing to bet on potential. Every promotion came with a lump-sum stipend. The higher the promotion, the larger the sum. Alfred offered his future stipend as collateral, debt to be repaid upon promotion. His scheme was a bit of a shell game, though, as once promoted, he would need another loan to purchase the equipment the stipend should have afforded. But one problem at a time.
Flush with cash, he donned the shibboleths of his superiors who began to take new stock of him. He slowly refined his accent in German and Polish, and learned passable French, English, and Russian. Invitations arrived for dinners, cards, even the occasional “weekender” so in vogue with younger officers.
People who like you generally assume you are similar to them. Alfred came to rely on it. And so, he mastered the craft of being liked. His appearance was impeccable, but never flashy. His humor uncontroversial, and he never vied to be the funniest. He listened, but never taxed others with his private thoughts. At cards he was skilled but would scuttle a hand to avoid winning two in a row. Questions about his past were met with general, vague statements, details skimmed until directly asked, and even then, Alfred endeavored to change the subject with a joke, laughter being the best distraction.
A fictitious, rich uncle was invented. Alfred casually mentioned in the right card games that he hoped his uncle, who lived in a never-described countryside, would be generous and understanding. His comrades grinned and assumed that his allowance, like theirs, hinged on the favor of a grumpy patriarch.
Once a quarter or so, Alfred announced blithely that he had been summoned to visit family in the country. Sometimes he actually visited his mother in Lemberg, but usually he just slept in the woods for a few nights. On the way back, he would visit the moneylender to refresh his purse. A new purchase usually accompanied him to the barracks—a felt cap, a supple leather hat box, something small but expensive. His comrades nodded with approval.
Promotions finally found him. He was invited to attend the War College. His plan was working. Every so often, he tensed at the thought that he was really just a con man. But con men hurt people, he reasoned. And who is hurt if a poor, Polish kid is raised from poverty and shines as an officer? If anything, he was paving the way for future generations, making the military more modern, more egalitarian. It was all going so very well, except that he owed more than sixty times his monthly pay.
It began with a cramped cottage.
Alfred longed to leave the odor of cabbage soup; leave his overwhelmed mother who swatted at her children indiscriminately, all the more since his father had died; and most of all, leave his thirteen brothers and sisters with their wails and snot and filth.
The military offered salvation. Their father had been a non-commissioned officer in his youth, and so his sons could attend cadet school for free as long as they could pass the admission exam. Twelve-year old Alfred dreamed of little else. Every day, he finished his chores quickly, studied until his eyes crossed. In those late hours, his dreams flickered in candlelight, warm and pure.
On exam day, the other boys arrived sweaty-palmed, but Alfred was bright-eyed. He had not come to take a test but claim his future. Failing was not an option. And he was correct. His scores were among the highest.
The morning Alfred boarded the train for Karthaus Cadet School was the greatest of his life. He was immeasurably proud of his school-issued uniform, the nicest clothing he had ever worn. But not fifteen minutes passed on campus before he noticed that only a dozen or so boys had school-issued uniforms like his. Most wore nicer store-bought ones, and a select group donned custom uniforms made with soft, hand-dyed wool. Alfred was dismayed to find he appeared coarse and common in comparison.
Later, he overheard another cadet refer to the boys in custom uniforms as “the vons.” Of course, Alfred thought. They’re the sons of noblemen. He should have known that. Back home there were vons and other strata of class, of course, but his family was so low that the layers above him seemed rather monolithic. When you’re at the bottom of the heap, there’s no point in worrying how the pile is structured. You just need to keep the weight from crushing you.
The first evening in the cafeteria, Alfred was amazed by how much food he was served. His plate brimmed with beets, potatoes, and a full ladle of boiled beef. So excited to eat, he unthinkingly took the first empty seat at a table of vons. They looked sideways at each other until one said curtly, “I say, you seem to have lost your way.” Alfred regarded the group, scanned the room. The others had all grouped themselves roughly by the quality of their uniforms. Alfred’s cheeks burned; he chided himself for his naiveté. He stood, bowed, and moved to sit with the school-issued uniforms, who didn’t question his presence and talked to him like they had always known him.
Days glided into weeks into months.
He was fourteen turned fifteen turned sixteen.
Days cycled between classes and drills, classes and drills.
One morning, a General Staff officer reviewed the cadets. Alfred was awed by the elegant, commanding man in his glass-green uniform. All the instructors deferred to him. Every von vied for his attention. It was a wonder to see that much power in action. But the General Staff officer didn’t address the whole class. Instead, he met briefly with the vons, then exited abruptly before the noon meal.
Later, Alfred asked his bunkmate, Borys, about it. Borys laughed at him, saying, “You really don’t get how things work, do you?” Stung, Alfred looked questioningly at Borys, who continued, “That General Staff officer is surveying cadet schools on the off chance there are any promising candidates.” Alfred stared blankly in response. He still did not understand. “Oh, come on, Fredl, our school is bottom-tier. The chances that any of us makes it all the way to the General Staff are nearly impossible. Any real chance belongs to the vons. So what’s the point of talking to the likes of you and me?”
Alfred sat quietly, trying to ignore his heart which was sinking slowly toward his toes. “So, where are you supposed to go if you want to be in the General Staff?”
“The Academy, of course. And then the War College. But they’re for the rich and noble-born. Our vons—they all have stories. Haven’t you noticed? Some are from disfavored families; some are landless, like, von Hessing—you know, Otto —the only thing his family owns is their title. He comes here for free. He’s as broke as you and me.”
Alfred chewed on Borys’s revelations all night. By morning, his mind had digested a plan.
Alfred’s thoughts return to the present moment, the hotel room and the Browning. The grey of the room lightens subtly, draws his attention. A tinge of muffled orange sneaks through the window, calls to mind the agents who wait outside. By sunrise, they must hear the Browning discharge. That’s the agreement. His gaze finds the pistol, not its reflection this time, but the real thing. He rests a hand on the piece, strokes the barrel with his fingertips. The smoothness of the metal comforts him.
Once there was a boy, he recalls, who didn’t care for tricks, who was true and loved the world, an eager boy who saw himself clearly.
An ancient memory surfaces.
It began with an errand.
Alfred trotted after his father, the smell of green wafting from the earth, the air crisping optimistically. Birds chirped, newly returned from wherever they had wintered—“Africa? Did they go to Africa, Father?”
His father led him through their neighborhood on the outskirts of town, across a fallow field, past the Jewish quarter, and into the city’s medieval center. The world was darker in this section, taller. The narrow streets created a sense of intimacy that Alfred found both exciting and dangerous.
It was an honor to be asked to accompany father into town. At least, Alfred was honored and said so repeatedly. His father, though, ignored him and walked at a quicker pace than Alfred could maintain.
They dodged in and out of alleyways—“Keep up, Fredl!” As they rounded a corner of a particularly narrow alley, his father stopped abruptly.
“Wait here. Talk to no one. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Alfred nodded and looked about for something to sit on. A collection of barrels lay in a darkened corner. Behind one, Alfred spied a man in a tight-fitting suit lying on the cobbles. What a funny place to sleep, he thought. The man’s blouse caught Alfred’s eye. It was lacy with flounces at the throat, the kind fancy ladies wore. Alfred moved closer and noticed red marks smeared on the man’s face. Some of the red was lipstick, Alfred realized with surprise. But some was blood.
His father reappeared and grabbed his arm. “Come along!”
“Look, father,” Alfred pointed. His father sucked his teeth as he regarded the man and then yanked Alfred by the hand. “Father,” Alfred protested, running alongside to keep from falling. “Who is that man?”
“How would I know?”
“I think he needs help.”
“Not my circus, not my monkey,” his father said as he spit. “Understand?”
Alfred bucked against his father’s grip. He didn’t understand, but he’d keep pace.
After a few silent moments, Alfred inquired, “Is he from the circus, father?”
“That man—he looks like a clown.”
His father stopped and held Alfred squarely by either shoulder. “He’s not a clown, you idiot. He’s a prostitute. Probably a cast off from the barracks.”
“But he’s a man.”
“He’s a pervert, Alfred. A fucking faerie. Damn army’s full of them. Don’t you see? He’s a man who wants like he’s a woman.”
Alfred’s mind filled with questions, but he knew better than to press. Once his father cursed, that was it.
A man who wants like he’s a woman. The phrase turned itself over and over and over in his mind. By supper, he thought he understood, calling to mind feelings he’d come to wonder at lately, that he had toward other boys. Alfred knew he should be repulsed by the idea, that the man in the alley was a cautionary tale, but the more he reflected, the more his heart elated. The knowledge that one could be a man who likes other men—that such was a category of existence—thrilled. But it was more than that. It was knowing there were many such men. His father had said as much: the army was full of them. The news astounded. Alfred was neither unique nor alone. He breathed from new air. Perhaps, he dared, the world was big enough for him after all.
As he picked at his stew, more water than food, fate whispered. Listening carefully, ears prickling, Alfred’s chest quietly filled with a hope pure as fire.
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