Bill Rapp Excerpt: The Hapsburg Variation

The Hapsburg Variation by Bill Rapp is the second book in the Cold War Thriller series (available December 1, 2017).

Eight years into his career with the CIA, Karl Baier once again finds himself on the front line of the Cold War. He is stationed in Vienna in the spring of 1955 as Austria and the four Allied Powers are set to sign the State Treaty, which will return Austria's independence, end the country's postwar occupation, and hopefully reduce tensions in the heart of Europe. But the Treaty will also establish Austrian neutrality, and many in the West fear it will secure Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and create a permanent division. Asked to help investigate the death of an Austrian aristocrat and Wehrmacht veteran, Baier discovers an ambitious plan not only to block the State Treaty, but also to subvert Soviet rule in lands of the old Hapsburg Empire. Then Baier's wife is kidnapped, and the mission becomes intensely personal. Many of his basic assumptions are challenged, and he discovers that he cannot count on loyalties, even back home in Washington, D.C. At each maddening turn in the investigation, another layer must be peeled away. Even if Baier succeeds in rescuing his wife, he faces the unenviable task of unraveling an intricate web of intrigue that reaches far back into the complicated history of Central Europe.

Chapter One

It seemed to Karl Baier as though he could never escape history, certainly not while working for the CIA. Not that he minded. He enjoyed slicing through the bureaucratic maze that came with any large organization, especially government ones. He had joined the Agency eight years ago at its inception in 1947 and found that studying the past helped. Especially working as the deputy chief of station in Vienna. Every once in a while, though, Karl wondered if he had at least one foot on the wrong side of history—if he was straddling that indistinct line that separates us from the past. Would he lose himself behind the curve of time by falling too deeply into the personalities and traditions of the past? How fully did he comprehend history's effect on the present—enough to allow him to have a positive impact on current events?

This time it started with a call in the middle of the night. Three o’clock, to be exact. Or almost. It might have been more like two forty-five or two fifty. He was disoriented at first, blinking his eyes to clear away the haze and confusion. Karl Baier studied the clock for several seconds before groping through the darkness that draped his bedroom like a shroud to pull the receiver closer to his ear.

“Hello?” He shifted his weight, raising himself on one elbow. The bedsprings groaned and something tumbled off the night table. Baier hoped it was a book. “Yes? What is it?”

“Sir, there’s been a call for you from the local police. A body or something.”

“A body?” The first thought that came to Baier was that this had to be a duty call, someone from his office he would have to identify; then he’d need to set in motion the painful process of informing the family and returning the remains. Struggling to recognize the voice, Baier paused to rub the sleep from his eyes and shift the receiver to his left ear.

“You mean a dead one?” Baier sent a silent prayer to no one in particular that it was a case well short of death. “Please tell me it’s just some drunk kid in a uniform who’s run afoul of the Russians or the locals again, someone we have to haul out of jail.” Baier took a deep breath and glanced at the clock to confirm just how early it was. Please don’t let it be one of ours. “Are you sure you need to be calling me and not the Army or the Embassy?”

The voice on the other end of the line was apologetic. Baier recognized it now as Adams, a first-tour officer who had the bad luck to pull night and weekend duty for the week. “It’s a corpse, sir. And they specifically asked for you. Otherwise I would have pushed this whole thing off on the military.”

Baier shoved back the covers and slid his legs off the mattress until his feet reached the floor. He stood, cradling the phone between his shoulder and cheek while he slipped on his watch. “So, why didn’t you call the MPs first off? And just who are ‘they’?”

“It was the Austrians, sir. The Interior Ministry Police. It’s not just the local cops. It sounded pretty serious. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have—”

“No, that’s all right. I understand. It’s just a bit of a shock getting a call at this hour.” He paused to glance out his bedroom window, not really sure what he expected to see beyond the impenetrable darkness. “American? It’s not one of ours, is it?”

“No, sir, not one of ours. I don’t think he’s been identified yet. At least, no one mentioned it.” Baier could hear the rustle of paper at the other end of the line. “It sounds like he’s Austrian, an older gent. He was dressed as a civilian for the most part, except for his jacket.”

“Where is this body then?”

“Down by the river, sir. Some drunk apparently saw it from the sidewalk walking home.”

“What do you mean ‘for the most part’?”

“Well, that’s what’s kind of odd, and it may be why they wanted you there. His jacket was actually an old Wehrmacht coat.”

“Wait a minute.” Baier stifled a yawn and ruffled his thick brown hair that felt like a patch of alfalfa after a draught. The early morning disorientation was beginning to wear off. “Did you say a Wehrmachtcoat? Did this guy not realize the war’s been over for ten years now? Did he just get out of a Soviet POW camp?” Even after the big release of 1948, there were still numerous German and Austrian prisoners of war languishing in the Soviet Union, probably because the work projects they had been assigned to were not yet finished.

“The locals said they’d know more by the time you got there and that they’d bring you up to speed at that point.”

“So where do I need to go? What part of the river are we talking about?”

“Well, the good news is that you’re nearby. It’s right in the center of town—almost, anyway. At the end of Rotenturm Street.”

Strasse. That’s what the Austrians call a street. So it’s Rotenturmstrasse.

“Whatever you say, sir.” A pause. “Sorry, sir.”

Baier smiled, in spite of the hour. “That’s all right. I don’t mean to be picky. I’m just tired.” And the day hadn’t even begun.

“I think you can see the spire of the Stephensdom from what they said.”

At least he had gotten the proper name for the cathedral. “I should hope so, son,” Baier replied. “It’s a pretty tall steeple. But thanks anyway.”


When Karl Baier arrived, he found the local police, along with two officers from the Interior Ministry, much as he had expected. This was, after all, their turf. The Austrians had been running their country for several years now, despite the continued presence of the four victorious powers who had divided Austria and Vienna into four zones of occupation, much as they had in Germany and Berlin. The difference was that the Austrian occupation was about to come to an end. May of 1955 was less than a month away. These same four powers had finally agreed to a peace treaty and a permanent state of neutrality for the independent nation of Austria. It had been dubbed the Staatsvertrag, or State Treaty, which would restore Austria to its full sovereignty and independence. Most important in the eyes of the locals, it would send all four Allied powers home. Baier was surprised that they would make such an effort to pull the Allies into what appeared to be a local killing with the occupation coming to an end in just a few weeks.

He was equally surprised to see representatives of the other three powers waiting for him on the riverbank. The French officer, a man Baier recognized as a member of their military intelligence, was in uniform and slouched in a sign of indifference to the entire affair, his lean, shaven face distorted by an obvious frown. It was as though he could not figure out why he had dressed so formally for such an insignificant affair. Still, the uniform did give his squat figure—perhaps the result of too much pâté and foie grasa more official aspect.

Baier had not seen the Soviet before, but identified him from his uniform as a lower ranking officer from the regular Soviet military, infantry most probably. The brawny man stood nearly erect, sucking in his shallow cheeks and glancing continually from side to side, as though wary of being lured into some sort of a trap.

Only Baier’s British colleague, a civilian like himself, wandered over to shake Baier’s hand and commiserate for the early morning conference on the slick banks of the Danube. The man appeared to have taken the time to shower and shave. His dark, wet hair was combed straight back, and his raincoat was wrapped and belted tightly around his thin frame. Baier guessed his height to be just about six feet, since the Brit’s forehead was just below his own.

Baier swept his hand over his own semi-combed hair and pulled his raincoat tighter around his chest and waist to ward off the damp, cool air. His thin nose was running, and his light hazel eyes were misting slightly under the soft morning breeze. For most of April, the Viennese weather hadn’t quite left winter behind and made that final transition to spring. The frequent rain had left the riverbank where they stood slippery and moist, and the weather kept Baier longing for some of that fabled Viennese coffee. His right foot skated across the mud when he tried to move. Glancing toward the opposite bank, he cursed his luck that had left the corpse lying on the muddy side of the river still under repair and construction. Why couldn’t the dead guy have been left on the paved and tree-lined path along the other bank?

“I insisted that we wait until your arrival before proceeding further,” his British colleague whispered. “I definitely wanted to have someone from your side, as it were, here to help in case the French or bloody Soviets tried anything inappropriate.”

“Like what?” Baier had met Henry Turnbridge once before and found him to be a likeable colleague from MI6. As likeable as possible, that is, with suspicion of a ‘third man’ in MI6 still lingering in the long, torturous wake of the Maclean and Burgess defections. Baier had sought to maintain a certain distance from his British colleagues, which seemed to suit Turnbridge just fine. Maybe he had his own doubts about his service. Or maybe he didn’t care for the pressure Washington kept putting on his superiors in London to pursue a more thorough house-cleaning of suspected Soviet agents buried within their service.

“Should we expect something like that from those guys just now?” Baier swung his gaze from the riverbank to the row of office buildings and apartment blocks that rimmed the road above. It was a panorama typical of Vienna today: four- and five-story buildings either reconstructed from the long granite blocks and classical designs of years past or the austere lines of metal and glass favored by modern European architects in their hurry to reconstruct a devastated central Europe. “What’s this all about, anyway?”

Turnbridge motioned with his head toward the Austrian officials from the Interior Ministry, who were flanked by two more police officers in uniform. “I’ll let them do the explaining. Not that I’ll expect them to have much to say in any case.”

Baier and his British colleague walked over to their Allied brethren, who followed the two Anglo-Saxons over to the Austrians standing next to the corpse. The body of an elderly Austrian—at least Baier assumed he was an Austrian since they were in Vienna—had been rolled over on his back, one arm thrown wide and pointing downriver, the other arm folded across his chest. His front was wet and dirty, as one would expect if he had been lying face down on this patch of riverbank.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” one of the Austrians said. “My name is Stefan Huetzing. I work at the Interior Ministry and will be leading the investigation into this murder. I already have your names from your respective commands so that I will know whom I should contact if it becomes necessary. I apologize for asking you to join me at such an early hour, but given the potential complications of this case, I wanted to be sure you were kept informed of all developments from the outset.”

The Austrian was tall, almost reaching Baier’s height. Baier figured him for 5’10’’ or maybe 5’11. His body was shrouded in a deep green Lodenmantel, which he left unbuttoned, and the damp morning air had plastered his light-blond hair to his scalp. Baier marveled over the man’s excellent command of English. He wasn’t sure just how much his French and Soviet colleagues would be able to follow. But in view of the difficulties the American authorities had encountered working with both, he wasn’t about to offer any assistance by pushing for a discussion in German. They’d probably have just as much difficulty following a conversation in that language.

“What sort of complications are we talking about, Herr Huetzing?” Baier asked. “How could this possibly affect the Allies, especially at this stage?”

The Austrian nodded. “I appreciate your uncertainties, Herr Baier, and again I sympathize with you for this early morning call.” He smiled and spread his arms. “It may come to nothing, but at this stage we want to avoid anything that might upset progress toward the signing of the State Treaty, which you understand remains our priority.”

Turnbridge pointed toward the body. “But what could this man have to do with our interests or the State Treaty, for that matter?”

Huetzing nodded again, apparently his way of acknowledging the question. “Hopefully nothing. But there is the matter of his jacket, which suggests an affiliation with the previous regime and its military forces. We also hope to identify him shortly, which should help us determine if there will indeed be complications. His jacket suggests he may have just made his way back here from the Soviet Union, and we naturally want to ensure that his departure and travels were all above board, as you say.” The Austrian sighed and glanced up and down the riverbank. “Moreover, until we know the exact circumstances of his death, it is probably best that we all keep an open mind.”

Baier and Turnbridge glanced at each other, then Baier studied the French and the Soviet officers. Both wore blank expressions, as though they had understood nothing and cared even less. Baier stepped closer to the body and found a face that appeared to be too old for active military service, although an extended period in Soviet captivity would age any man quickly. Still, Baier guessed his age as no younger than fifty. There were no other clues as to his background. The pants were made of a light-gray wool, and the shoes were of a well-worn black leather that looked as though they might have cost a fair bit when they were new. Of course, Baier had no way of knowing when that was, or if they originally belonged to this individual. The hands were rough and weathered, not surprising in one who’d performed years of hard labor in the USSR. Of course they didn’t know if the man had indeed just returned from Soviet captivity or even been a prisoner there at all. Baier sighed, wondering just what they were supposed to know this early on. Or why they should even bother. The loose cotton shirt gave even less indication of the man’s history, covered as it was with a large bloodstain over the chest.

“Oh, one other thing, gentlemen,” the Austrian Huetzing announced. “This man was not shot here. He appears to have been killed somewhere else, and then whoever committed the crime dumped the body here.” He pointed at the ground and circled the area with his index finger. “You see, there is no blood around here, and no sign of a struggle.”

“Would you be able to determine that so soon and in this light?” the Frenchman asked. Baier grinned. So, the guy did speak English.

Huetzing nodded again. “Oh, quite.” He looked upward. “The sun is already coming out, so we have been able to see well enough. And I think you will find that we are not so primitive in our investigations here. It may not be Paris, but we have done this sort of thing before.”


As he approached his house afterward, Baier could have sworn that he had turned off all his lights when he left for his rendezvous at the Danube. But standing in the front walk, he could clearly see a single bulb casting a soft round glow from his kitchen at the back. Admittedly, it had been pretty damn early, and Baier remembered rushing from the house and locking his door in a flurry tempered only by exhaustion. Nevertheless he was pretty sure that he had indeed turned the key in the lock and that the house had been dark, matching the pre-dawn sky that surrounded it. But there it was: a soft shaft of light sliding toward him across the small lawn and along the walkway in front of the house.

He inched through the front door—definitely unlocked at this point—and crept toward the back of the house. A man sat at his kitchen table, a navy-blue overcoat draped over the chair next to him with a hat resting on the tabletop. He faced the front of the house, presumably to greet Baier when he entered, and he had already helped himself to a cup of what appeared to be freshly brewed coffee. Baier was sure as hell he had not made any before he left.

“Would you like some?” the stranger asked in a German that had the soft musical tones of an Austrian dialect. Baier had not placed it just yet. The interloper held his cup aloft and offered it to Baier.

“Thank you, but I’ll get my own.” Baier moved toward the cabinet next to the sink and pulled a mug from the bottom shelf. “In this sort of situation, it’s probably best if I handle hot liquids on my own.”

The stranger smiled. “Of course. As I had already drunk from this one, I meant to fetch you a new cup.” He placed his own coffee cup back down on the table top. “Since it’s your house, please do as you wish.”

“That’s very generous of you.” Baier studied the man, who was easily as tall as himself, but looked to be about twenty pounds heavier despite his thin, angular features. He was wearing a well-tailored dark-gray woolen suit, a white dress shirt, and blue-and-red-striped necktie. It looked as though he had tried—without really wanting to—to hide a set of broad shoulders and a waist that appeared to be growing with his country’s postwar prosperity. Baier could not see the man’s shoes, hidden as they were underneath the table. He had learned that a good way to judge a man’s true standing and situation in postwar Europe was to assess his footwear. “How did you get in?”

“Oh, it wasn’t difficult. The lock was not all that challenging, actually.” He smiled. “But you needn’t worry. I did not break it.”

Despite his annoyance, Baier managed to keep his voice even. “I thank you once again. You’re quite the considerate visitor.” He added a few drops of cream to his coffee, took a sip, and was glad to discover that his visitor made a nice, strong pot of coffee. Then again, he was Austrian. He was almost surprised the guy hadn’t boiled any milk to create the foam the locals often liked to use to top off their coffee. “Now, who are you and what do you want?”

The uninvited guest pivoted in his chair to face Baier, who was leaning against the front of the sink. “My name at this point is unimportant—”

“I disagree. After all, you have broken in to my house.”

The smile returned. “Actually, the house belongs—or belonged—to a former regime official from the Gestapo—”

“Whom I would love to see return to claim it.”

“I agree, that is hardly likely.” He held up his hand in a form of supplication or even consent. “And I agree that he would be unlikely to retain it, at least at the outset, since a prison sentence surely awaits him.”

“Not necessarily. Not if he’s Austrian.”

Touché. But we are digressing, Herr Baier. I am really here to discuss this morning’s discovery at the riverbank.”

Baier strolled to the table and grabbed a chair opposite his visitor. He sat heavily and stared at the man. “And …?”

“Let me get right to the point. I hope you will agree to investigate the man and his murder.”

“Why should I? You have a capable police force and the authority to do that yourself. I’m assuming you are an Austrian and a representative of the government. Or is that incorrect? I mean, I still don’t know your name.”

“Yes, yes, Herr Huetzing is a very capable officer. He works for the criminal investigations office in the Interior Ministry, by the way.”

“I know. He told us.”

“And he is a man of considerable experience.”

“He didn’t go that far. But I’ll take your word for it.”

“Nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll agree that there are international ramifications to this murder, coming as it does so close to the signing of the peace settlement and State Treaty. And there are questions about what this man had been up to.” He paused to study Baier’s face. “That was why I insisted Huetzing contact you.” He leaned back and waved at the air around him. “He’s the one who decided to bring in the other Allies. He was afraid it might affect his relations with the others if he only brought in the Americans.”

Baier leaned back in turn. “So I have you to thank for my lack of sleep this morning.” He shook his head and smiled. As he considered the sharp blue eyes and dark blond hair of this stranger, he leaned forward again, stretching his arms across the table and pushing the coffee to the side. “In the first place, ever since your foreign minister and his delegation returned from Moscow about a week ago, the treaty is practically a done deal. The Soviets have removed their objections, and there are no remaining territorial disputes, even with the Yugoslavs.”

“Oh, come now. Even you are not that innocent. Your own army nearly fought with the French to get them out of northern Italy, and we all remember the standoff with Tito’s Yugoslav partisans in Carinthia. You know how powerful those emotions remain in this part of the world, and that it would not take much to exploit them.”

“But who would want to? It’s getting a bit late in the game for anything like that.”

“Yes, hopefully.” The visitor leaned forward, facing Baier, his arms outstretched to where he was almost touching Baier’s hand. “But that’s what we need to find out. We must be certain that this goes no further.”

“Just who is ‘we’? And why me?”

The man let out a mouthful of stale breath, his teeth stained by too much coffee, too many cigarettes, and not enough brushing. “ ‘We’ are the Austrian government. I really can’t say any more at the moment.” He studied Baier’s face, apparently unmoved by the bags under his eyes and the ruffled patch of hair. “And we have chosen you because of your position and the country you represent.”

“You want an American investigating this case … or at least the international aspects, as you put it?”

The Austrian nodded vigorously. “Yes, of course. We have found your country to be the most cooperative and helpful throughout the occupation.” He shrugged. “The British have been good partners as well, of course, but there is a limit these days to what they can achieve. You Americans, on the other hand ….”

It was Baier’s turned to smile. “I appreciate the flattery. But why me, exactly?”

The Austrian leaned back in his chair and pondered the half cup of coffee still sitting in his mug. “I am aware that you occupy a deputy’s position in the CIA station here. That gives you a certain amount of authority and access. It will also allow us to keep your part of the investigation discreet, as it were.” The smile returned. “And your German is almost as good as mine.”

Baier was tempted to tell this interloper that his own German was probably better. After all, the guy was Austrian, whereas Baier’s parents had come from Germany. Then again, the Austrians had had enough of the arrogance and condescension their German brethren brought with them when Berlin incorporated Austria into the Third Reich. Baier studied his interloper for a full minute. He broke the silence with two loud sips from his coffee cup. “You understand, of course, that I will confirm nothing you have claimed about my position here. I work as a political advisor to the American commander’s office in the Occupation Authority. Period. Nor am I in a position to accept, formally or informally, your request for assistance.” He paused. “And my German is pretty damn good. It’s my Austrian that needs the work.”

The visitor let out a long sigh. Then he stood. “Be that as it may, I would like to assume that you Americans will assist us in the matter, as it is in your interests as well as ours that we conclude this State Treaty next month, and that we establish at least a modicum of stability here in the heart of Europe.”

He moved behind his chair, which he pushed back into place against the table. Baier glanced at his shoes. They were polished black leather dress shoes in good shape. Baier guessed that they might even be a new pair.

“There are some in Washington who are not so sure,” Baier replied, “or who might see it a bit differently, at least. Bonn, too.” The Austrian smiled, as did Baier. “This neutrality thing makes them nervous. They think it leaves your country open to pressure from the Soviets. And that it could set an unfortunate precedent.”

The Austrian displayed the first sign of impatience Baier had seen this morning. “Oh, come now, Herr Baier. Your leadership must learn to think of the Europe we shall inhabit a bit more creatively. There is a great deal we can do in Austria if we are free of both camps.”

Baier shrugged. “Yes, but will you stay free? And will you stay aligned with the West ultimately?”

Ach, of course,” the Austrian exclaimed. “That is our goal. But we will need your help and understanding. That is why we would like to have you involved in this case. You may discuss this with whomever you like in your chain of command … wherever that might be.” He seemed to relax and smiled again. As he retrieved his hat and pulled on his overcoat, he said, “There is no need to show me out. I know the way.”

“Obviously. How will I contact you if I need to discuss this further?”

The Austrian paused and considered Baier with a gaze as cold and hard as stone. “That will not be necessary.”

Baier stood and watched his visitor walk toward the door. By now he had concluded the man was a complete asshole. He had invaded his home, issued orders, and refused to identify himself. “Well, that’s convenient, for you anyway. Can you at least give me the man’s name? The dead one, I mean. Do you know that much yet?”

The Austrian paused by the front door while he set the hat on his head. His right hand dove into his pants pocket, pushing the folds of his coat back in an aristocratic gesture. “Von Rudenstein. Herr Heinrich Rudolph von Rudenstein. Before the war, his family owned a large estate near the Hungarian border, and they served with distinction for generations in the Hapsburg army. In fact, the lands originally extended over the border into modern Hungary.”

Notanymore, Baier thought. “Well, that’s a start, anyway.” If he had served with distinction, it had been a waste of time in the old Austrian army, defending the Hapsburg’s declining Empire in its later years. “How did he do in the more recent war?”

The visitor smiled. “Very well. Some would say even better.” His brow furrowed in thought, as though he was carefully considering his next words. His gaze set on Baier like a cloak.

“Oh, one other thing, Herr Baier. You might want to be sure that your wife returns home from visiting her family near Leipzig.” The Austrian paused again to study the floor as though weighing his words. “It may be best if she were not in a position that would bring extra pressure to bear upon you while this investigation is underway.”

You son of a bitch, Baier thought. “What did you say? Pressure from whom?” Baier’s teeth clenched, and his eyes narrowed. “And just how in the hell did you know where she is right now?”

The Austrian never answered. He straightened the brim of his homburg, smiled again, and walked out the door. “Pfertig Gott, HerrBaier.”

So the bastard’s a Tyrolian, Baier said to himself. We shall see just who investigates whom and how cooperative I’ll be. Baier turned and marched back to the kitchen, where he threw the rest of the coffee into the sink. As he stared at the brown puddle resting under the spigot, Baier thought back to his immediate postwar days in Berlin, the first encounter with his Soviet counterparts, German refugees, returning prisoners-of-war, ex-Nazis, and of course, Sabine, his wife. It had been a time of fear and uncertainty, but also excitement and suspense in the midst of a dangerous and changing world.

Those same emotions had just returned.

Excerpted from THE HAPSBURG VARIATION© Copyright 2017 by Bill Rapp. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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Bill Rapp recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency after thirty-five years as an analyst, diplomat, and senior manager. After receiving his BA from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Vanderbilt University, Bill taught European History at Iowa State University for a year before heading off to Washington, D.C. The Hapsburg Variation is the second book in the Cold War Spy series featuring Karl Baier. Bill also has a three-book series of detective fiction set outside Chicago with P.I. Bill Habermann, and a thriller set during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, two daughters, two miniature schnauzers, and a cat. For more information, go to

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