MacKenzie and Marks

Undercover in Austria

by Gillian B

Part 9: Vienna - Viennese Waltz

Saturday 29 January 1938

8.30 pm A Practical Escape Challenge

We had received a note asking me to meet with members of the Patriotic Movement. Sarah counselled against my going as our whole mission was at stake, not just my safety. I understood her concerns, but nevertheless decided to make the rendezvous. Sarah had taken matters into her own hands and gone in my place. Diane and I were left behind in our room, both securely tied to chairs and gagged.

Sarah had forced me to tie up Diane and to do the majority of my own tying. Diane was less securely tied than me, but too inexperienced in escapology to be able to effect an escape. If we were to get loose, it was all down to me, but I had done a good job and seriously doubted my ability to escape.

I could reach none of the knots which secured me and the chair was a sturdy one with no real hope of breaking it in order to escape. Logically, therefore, I had to find a way to reach Diane's bonds and release her.

My feet were on the floor, so I had some scope for shuffling the chair around. I slowly manoeuvred my chair towards Diane. She realised what I was doing and propelled hers to meet me. Even the most cursory of glances showed that there was no opportunity of escape. My hands were much higher up than Diane's and it turned out there were no accessible knots at all on a level I could reach with my hands. The only knots in any of my ropes which were near to her hand level were underneath the seat of my chair and completely unreachable.

I sat still to think about the situation. I was still convinced that getting Diane's hands untied was the only possible route to freeing us. If I tipped my chair over, I would certainly end up with my hands at a different height above the floor. On my back, the height would be the length of my forearm plus the thickness of the chair back. With the chair over on one side, the height of the higher hand would be determined by the width between the chair arms. I judged that my hand might be a little too high, but that it was worth the risk.

I shuffled my chair out into an open area of floor and started rocking it gently from side to side. After a few rocks, it had enough momentum to go right over to the left. I waved my right hand at Diane in the hope that she would realise what I was trying to do. She nodded and began moving her chair towards me. It was a long slow process. Diane was certainly learning about escapology the hard way.

Eventually, she worked her chair across to mine. I was dismayed to find that my right hand was still too high to reach the knot on her wrist binding. I forced myself to relax and contemplated the situation. Even if I could reach, untying Diane's wrists would be tricky, because I had tied the ends of that rope down to the crossbar between the back legs of her chair. I couldn't quite reach that knot with my left hand, which was practically on the floor.

I thought further, than tried one last approach to the problem. I moved my chair as close as I could to Diane's. With my right hand, I could just reach a crossbar which formed part of the chair back. I gripped it firmly and pushed down as hard as I could. As I did so, my chair tilted slightly, so I was able to reach a little higher with my left hand and reach the crossbar joining the back legs of Diane's chair. I wasn't able to hold this position for long enough to untie the knot and had to let my chair rock back. I waited until my wrist had recovered slightly, then took a firmer grip and tilted the chair again. I grabbed the knot on the crossbar again and was able to untie it this time. Thankfully, I allowed the chair to drop back down.

Diane felt her wrist binding slacken slightly and started wriggling her hands. After a few moments, the rope was loose enough for her to pull one hand free. It took several more minutes of painful work for her to get her right arm round to the front of her body. After another moment's work, I saw the ropes round her arms and chest go slack. She moved her left hand round in from of her and then lifted the whole coil of rope up over her head and let it fall behind her.

Next, Diane reached up behind her neck, unknotted her gag, unwound it from round her head and pulled the rolled-up stocking out of her mouth. She looked at me over her shoulder. "You don't mess around when you tie people up, do you, Miss MacKenzie?" she remarked, apparently without malice.

Diane worked on methodically, untying the ropes over her shoulders then removing the ropes over her lap and finally bending down to free her legs. I lay uncomfortably on my side waiting patiently in my chair, relaxing as much as I could in that position.

Eventually, Diane stood up rather unsteadily and stretched her cramped limbs. She turned to me and then hoisted my chair upright again. She started by removing my gag, then looked over my bonds critically, deciding where to begin. She started by freeing my wrists then my elbows. "I thought I was tied up tight," she commented, "but it wasn't a patch on this effort."

After another five minutes, I was completely free. I stood up gratefully, rubbing my battered wrists. As I put my dress back on, I noticed the time. It was nearly 9.30 pm. Sarah would either have accomplished her mission successfully by now or could be in serious trouble.

9.30 pm A Familiar Face

Diane and I were still debating the pros and cons of going in search of Sarah or waiting patiently for developments, when I the door to our room being unlocked.

The door opened and, after a pause, Sarah came into the room followed by two other people. The first of these, I recognised - it was the aristocratic young man who had been a volunteer in our act at Innsbruck and again in Salzburg, whom we had dumped in a laundry hamper bound and gagged and who had watched us board our train in Graz. He had a drawn pistol in his hand. The other was a woman unfamiliar to me.

I looked at Sarah, she was still dressed as I had last seen her in my coat, hat and scarf, with the scarf obscuring the lower part of her face. What I now realised was that her wrists were discreetly tied in front of her with a black silk scarf.

The woman pulled the muffler down from Sarah's face and removed the handkerchief which had been bound around her mouth. Sarah had the good grace to look extremely embarrassed as she did the introductions. "Boss, this is Klaus von Immelhausen and Magda, his wife. He appears to be our principal contact in Vienna." Now I was completely confused.

Von Immelhausen returned the pistol to his pocket.

In the discussion that followed, it again emerged that the Patriotic Movement were uncertain whether the British government truly opposed or covertly supported Nazi Germany. Von Immelhausen had therefore been assigned to watch us to make sure we were not in contact with pro-Nazi elements in Austria. On the occasion we had caught him searching our stage luggage, he believed that I had been captured (as indeed I had - that was when I had to escape from the coffin on the train). His job now was to ensure that we had arrived safely and to act as a go between with one of the groups in Vienna.

On discovering that Sarah (disguised as me) had turned up at his requested rendezvous, he suspected that a trap was being set, drew his gun and demanded that Sarah take him to me immediately. Sarah's hands were bound, to make her a little more co-operative and she was gagged just before entering Dr Schäler's house.

Inwardly I seethed at this lack of communication and the sheer amateurism of these people. Outwardly I expressed my pleasure at meeting him and my satisfaction with the proposed arrangements. With that he snapped his heels together and bowed to me, inclined his head to Sarah and Diane then went on his way together with Magda von Immelhausen who had said nothing during the entire interview.

"Will someone untie my hands now please?" asked Sarah plaintively.

I delivered a stern lecture to Sarah with heavy emphasis on issues of insubordination, assaulting an officer and the Naval Discipline Act in general. I told her that I wouldn't do anything this time but if she pulled a trick like that again, she could expect to be picking oakum in the brig at Portsmouth for a very long time. I added, more kindly, that I understood her motive to protect the mission.

I looked down at Sarah's bound wrists and suggested, with a grin, that she untie herself and show Diane how to do it as an extra lesson. Sarah nodded at me - we both knew where we stood professionally, but the mission and our friendship had survived the strain.

While Sarah and Diane chatted about the finer points of untying one's own wrists, I settled down to think out the events of the coming week. We had a busy schedule at the theatre, including the first presentation of a new trick. We also had to make contact with some of von Immelhausen's colleagues in the Patriotic Movement. Last, but not least, I had requested an airlift out of Austria and we had to be ready for that.

Monday 31 January 1938

10.00 pm Delivery

Sunday had passed off uneventfully, with church then lunch with the Schälers followed by a trip to the Vienna Woods where we walked and talked and thought light-hearted Straussian thoughts in the winter sunshine.

On Monday, we were most definitely back to work. Our props should have been delivered to the theatre by this time, so I dispatched Sarah and Diane off there to check everything over and to start setting up the equipment for that night's show.

Meanwhile, I had reached the critical stage of my mission. My work for that Monday morning was the whole purpose of our being in Vienna. I had to deliver the material put into my hands by my superiors in Whitehall. Surprisingly often broad daylight offers better concealment for covert activities than the darkness of night. Accordingly, I set off around Vienna on that brilliantly sunny but crisp and cold Monday morning and my carpet bag contained a sensitive item disguised as an innocuous accoutrement of a travelling entertainer. My cover was simply that I was on a shopping trip and had things to buy in connection with our show.

10.15 am The Music Shop

I travelled into the City Centre on a noisy and shaky tramcar. My first port of call was a small shop in one of the narrow streets behind St Stephen's Cathedral. It was a music shop. I breathed in as I entered the shop, savouring the combination of dust, shellac and slightly decayed paper which always seem to me to be the very odour of music itself.

A small spectacled man introduced himself to me and politely asked if he could be of assistance. I thanked him and produced a printed piano score. I explained that as well as my magic act, I was representing a new British music publisher and offered to play him the piece. He spread his hands in a gesture of submission and ushered me towards a piano.

I sat down and opened the score. It was my own personal copy, heavily annotated in pencil. I played the piece rather slower than marked and with some difficulty. It was a very demanding, modern sonata, slightly dissonant and full of difficult rhythms. It was by a virtually unknown young British composer but bore echoes of contemporary work by Zoltan Kodaly or Darius Milhaud.

Somewhere buried within the notation that made up the music itself was a coded message. I was privy to neither its content not the method of reading it. The pencil notes were a diversion to some extent, but also perfectly genuine as the piece was formidably difficult for someone of my limited talent to play.

The shopkeeper and any of his associates would also be blissfully unaware of the hidden contents of the music. There was a code hidden there and it could probably be broken with difficulty and the expenditure of a great deal of effort. The encrypted message was, however, completely meaningless, intended only as a red herring and a time-waster for anyone who might try to probe its contents.

In return for the shopkeeper's time, I purchased a set of new piano pieces which looked promising as dance numbers.

10.45 am The Magic Shop

My next visit was another shop a few streets away. My briefing from von Immelhausen had sent me here. As it happened, I already knew of this shop by reputation although this was my first visit in person - it sold a vast range of specialist props for stage magicians together with books, posters and memorabilia all related to stage magic.

The proprietress was a woman whom I judged to be in her seventies although she was clearly still very fit. She had been a magician's assistant in her younger days and had set up this shop with a legacy about the turn of the century.

I spent a happy quarter hour browsing round the goods on sale. I wondered how she ever stayed in business, with a vast stock that must have been worth a fortune in working capital and an apparently negligible supply of customers.

I was mixing pleasure with business, or possibly business with duty, depending how you look at it. I wanted to find a small present for Diane to encourage her in the career I had unceremoniously given her. I eventually settled on a pair of discreetly gimmicked handcuffs, which might be seen for what they were by a locksmith but which would surely pass all lesser examinations.

The more serious part of my visit was the sale of a number vintage magic books to the shop. Amongst these was an apparently old and battered copy of the 1920 British edition of Houdini's Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. I say apparently, because in reality it had been printed only a few weeks previously. The illustrations were identical to the authentic edition, but the text had been altered minutely and laid out subtly differently, so that particular words did not fall in exactly the same place as in published copies.

An ordinary printed book can provide an effective mechanism for encrypting a message. The date of sending the message can be used as a key to the place in the book to start. For example on 31 January 1938, I might begin on page 38, and count down 32 lines (31+1) to find my key text. There are many ways of using a book as a key, but most involve use of letters as positional information. For example, suppose we were to use this very paragraph you are reading now as a key and suppose that the message is "SEND HELP NOW".

We can turn letters into numbers just by using their position in the alphabet, with A=1 and so through to Z=26. SEND HELP NOW becomes 19, 5, 14, 4, 8, 5, 12, 16, 14, 15, 23.

Reading off from "An ordinary...", we pick the 19th letter, then the 5th on from that and so on. The ciphertext is thus ONCESEEEGES. As chance would have it, there is also in this example the opportunity to disguise the nature of the ciphertext. Sending it as "ONCE SEE EGES" could suggest that EGES was a codeword of some kind, possibly misdirecting a cryptanalyst working on it.

Decrypting is a little trickier, because, for example the first O in the ciphertext is not the first O in the key text, but any errors like this are easily identified as they decrypt to gibberish.

I am being deliberately vague and general as to the precise method of encryption to be used with this key for the simple reason that I was not party to it. Sarah had memorised the instructions to go with the key text, but she did not know which (if indeed any) of the books I had sold was the one to be used. At some point during the week, Sarah would make contact and pass on her part of the information.

Reluctantly, I left the magic shop. I could quite happily have spent the rest of the day in there, looking at the goods and listening to the proprietress's anecdotes of past customers. Houdini, his brother Theo Hardeen, Harry Kellar and Neville Maskelyne had all been there at one time or another.

11.30 am The Café

My shopping expedition complete, I made my way to a café and rewarded myself with a large cup of excellent Viennese coffee and a truly wicked pastry. In addition to the critical visit to the magic shop, I had also visited a theatrical costumier and replenished our stock of stage make-up, a gunsmith where I had purchased some light oil (which is as suitable for lubricating handcuffs and other locks as it is for guns) and also a hardware shop where I had ordered some coils of rope to be delivered to the theatre.

When I left the café, I absentmindedly 'forgot' to pick up the umbrella I had taken in with me. Anyone of a suspicious turn of mind examining the umbrella would eventually find a piece of paper which had become wedged in the crack between the metal part of the shaft and the wooden handle. Extensive research would eventually identify the paper as a London Transport tram ticket. On the reverse of the ticket was a mysterious series of numbers. I doubted very much whether even the most determined of spies would identify these as the numbers of letters in the titles of each of the books on one shelf of my sitting-room book case. More misdirection.

12.30 pm Surprise Message

As I came in sight of the theatre, I noticed a man leaning against a lamp-post reading a news paper. When I was a few yards from him, he detached himself from the lamp-post, folded his paper and tucked it under one arm then approached me.

I took in a slightly built sandy-haired man in his early thirties. He was of middle height, probably no taller than me. He wore a trench-coat and a hat with a rather broader brim than usual. "Fräulein MacKenzie?" he asked. I nodded and he continued, "Ich hab' hier eine Meldung für Sie." A message for me. He handed me a folded piece of paper which I opened and looked at. It was in cipher:


I looked back at the man. He smiled at me and tipped his hat, then went on his way.

I was puzzled. From his accent, he was not a native speaker of German, although clearly fluent. It struck me too that he had pronounced 'MacKenzie' perfectly, which few foreigners are able to do. However, if he were English, I would expect to recognise his accent as English. I shook my head in bafflement and carried on into the theatre.

12.45 am Surprise Timetable

I went to the dressing room first and dumped my outdoor clothes there. There was no sign of either Sarah or Diane, so I went to the stage to see if they were there.

I found Diane exercising at an improvised barre apparently put together for her by one of the stage hands. Sarah was meanwhile checking props planned for that night's performance. They were chattering happily together. As I approached they stopped talking and looked at me. I privately concluded that the conversation had been about me. I made no comment about that but told them we had received a message and requested Sarah's help in deciphering it.

Sarah looked at it then said, "Let's assume they used the same key we did. If that doesn't work, we'll have to do some thinking."

We knelt down by a convenient trunk to use as a desk and set to work. Diane looked over my shoulder with interest. There is nothing intrinsically difficult about a Playfair cipher, but the task is simpler with one person to call out letters from the ciphertext and another to translate them using the grid.

Sarah wrote down the key (MACKENZIE backwards):


Next, she quickly worked out the grid:


I started calling out pairs of letters from the ciphertext and Sarah replied with letters which would form the plaintext. CN became BE, QA became GI and so on until we had a complete decrypt:


A few seconds thought revealed the message:


There was also a little padding at the end to make up a complete group.

Midnight local time today, 40 miles north of Vienna and across the Czech frontier. We were theoretically booked to be at this theatre until Friday. Some fast thinking would be required.

We decided to use our planned finale for the run in Vienna that night - a new trick which we had not yet performed in public. It did not require many heavy props and it also involved a gun, so giving us the double advantage of rapid preparation and an excuse to be armed.

1.15 pm Preparation

Sarah had a last errand to run. It was essential that she deliver the instructions to go with the cipher book I had taken to the magic shop that morning. We were supposed to arrange a different rendezvous for her to do that, but in view of our drastically foreshortened itinerary, there was no option but to take the risk of sending her back to the same shop on the day that I had visited. I looked at my watch. "If you go now and take a taxi you should be back by 2 o'clock," I told her.

Sarah went on her way and I set about unpacking the props for the evening's trick, briefing Diane as I worked.

Once I had gone as far as I could with preparation without Sarah's help, I turned my attention to Diane's dance number. I had already discussed re-using the Danse Macabre number, but the Bandmaster told me it was a piece they did not know well enough to play without considerable rehearsal. Time was ridiculously short, so in desperation, I worked my way through the scores I had with me until Diane, the Bandmaster and I agreed on one that Diane could dance to, the band could perform and I could play on the piano for rehearsal. It was Schubert's Marche Militaire - appropriate in its way for an act involving firearms.

I arranged a shortened version of Marche Militaire on the piano, omitting the second theme, while Diane improvised a dance to go with it.

We had reached (but not fully rehearsed) a workable dance for the show, when I noticed the time. It was 2.30 pm and Sarah had not reappeared.

I went over the things Sarah had to do and the time it had taken me to get to the theatre from the magic shop on foot. We concluded that either something had gone wrong or Sarah was in trouble or both.

While Diane changed out of her practice costume, I hurriedly finished marking up the score for Marche Militaire and thrust it at the Bandmaster as we headed off in search of Sarah. Things were getting desperate, so I took my revolver with me at the risk of awkward questions being asked if we were stopped for any reason.

2.45 pm Search Party

Diane and I hailed a cab as we left the theatre and returned to the magic shop. We had not bothered with a disguise or made any real attempt at concealing ourselves, as I suspected that out movements were already all too well known.

When we arrived at the shop, Diane and I walked discreetly by on the opposite side of the street. The first thing we noticed was that the window blinds had been drawn, despite it only being mid-afternoon. In order to reconnoitre properly, we needed a better view inside. We had no option, but to peer around the edge of one of the blinds if we could.

I instructed Diane to stay out of sight so that if I was spotted, I might be assumed to be working alone. I walked past the shop, stopped and then squatted down on my heels to see under the blind as if taking a better look at the goods displayed in the window.

There was no sign of the proprietress, but I could see Sarah. She was sitting on the floor in the middle of the shop, securely manacled and with something strapped into her mouth. It looked to me very much as if she was the bait in a trap which had been set for me.

Copyright © 1999 Gillian B

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