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Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

9780727882691The fourth novel in the Viennese Mystery series, The Keeper of Hands, has just been published in the U.S., to strong reviews. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful,” and further praised the “top-notch detecting and characterizations.” Booklist also gave it a thumbs up, noting: “As much an exploration of prewar [WWI] Vienna as it is a mystery yarn, the book is full of striking visual imagery that helps conjure up the landscape…this series is well worth a look.”

In tandem with that publication, I had an interview with journalist Guy Bergstrom for the Big Thrill, the monthly online mag of the International Thriller Writers. He asked me an interesting question about the moment I knew as a student in Vienna in the late 1960s that I wanted to stay on there for a number of years and write about the city. It brought to mind this tale of Cold War Vienna:

As a student, I frequented a dive of a café near my lodgings in the third district. It was dodgy and not gemütlich at all. A worker joint with a perpetual haze of blue smoke overhead, a zinc bar, and a jukebox on which someone was always playing “Rock around the Clock.” I would take my small orange-covered, graph lined Rhodia notebook and a pocketful of Staedtler HB pencils with me when I went there, order an achtel of gut-burning Vetliner, and imagine I was another Hemingway in the making.

One evening a rather drunken man at the next table asked me what I was scribbling. I humored him–he seemed a pleasant enough type–and said I was trying to write a short story about Vienna. He immediately got up, came to my table, and sat down without being invited, breathing rank fumes in my face as he leaned in toward me. “I’ve got a story,” he all but hissed. Then he cast his eyes about the room to make sure no one was watching.

It was early autumn and a warm evening; he was dressed in short sleeves. He quickly pulled up the sleeve on his left arm. There, on the inside of his upper bicep was a black tattoo. It took me a moment to decipher it, for it was in Gothic script. I finally realized that it was the letters “AB”.

I raised my eyebrows; he nodded. An avid reader of thrillers even then, I knew that this was his blood type. It was also his badge: he was a former SS.

“I have stories,” he whispered.

At that moment I realized I was not in Kansas (in my case, Oregon) anymore. I was out in the big world where anything could happen, swept up into the cyclone of history. I remember the frisson of excitement I experienced at that realization. I wanted to keep repeating it.

 

For more about The Keeper of Hands and the background of the Viennese Mysteries, see my podcast interview with Publishers Weekly. 99-v1-138x.PNG

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Fans of this blog know that I occasionally post remembrances of Vienna and Europe during the final decades of the Cold War. These have always gotten a good response–good enough that I have gathered some of these together (plus a long short story) for a memoir now available as an Amazon Kindle.

Here is the blue-eyed refugee from the Biafran War, Ubhani, the man in the tower of the title, seeking asylum in the Austrian capital; the Hungarian patriot who pays his own special tribute to the 1956 uprising; the nondescript state police agent commissioned to watch foreigners in neutral Austria to ensure they did not ruffle the feathers of the Soviets; the editor of a prestigious Viennese publishing house none too eager to do business with a brash young Ami.

Travel back to Czechoslovakia just months after the Soviet’s brutal suppression of Prague Spring in’68; to guard towers along the waist-deep waters of a lake on the Austro-Hungarian border; to a cozy armchair at the British Council Library; to an all-purpose Tabak Trafik: to life in a Cretan cave; or to the final voyage of the SS France.

An added bonus is the short story, “Body Blows,” which introduces Sam Kramer, the foreign correspondent protagonist from my new series of novels set in Europe following the fall of the Wall.

Cover art is by a talented graphic artist, Peter Ratcliffe.

And hey, at $4.99, what’s not to like?

Enjoy!

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Another post in my ongoing series of Cold War Europe:

It’s only about 130 miles from Vienna to Budapest, but during the years I lived in the Austrian capital, during the Cold War, Budapest, part of the Soviet East Bloc, was in many ways located in another time and world. You can take a hydrofoil there now on the Danube, fly, drive, sip a glass of wine on high-speed rail–I suppose you could even navigate a hot air balloon there from Vienna if you wanted.

That is now. Time was, however, when those hundred-plus miles took days of preparation: getting the right visa with the right stamps, making train and hotel reservations, changing money, but not too much. As I recall, you could take a small amount of forints into the country, but the Hungarians wanted Western currency. Ultimately, you needed to change Austrian schillings or American dollars inside Hungary where the rate was much higher. The language is also daunting–a distant relation to Finnish or Estonian with little Latin or Greek to hold onto for the non-speaker. Igen, “yes,” is about all I can muster now. (more…)

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Here’s another from Cold War Vienna. This is a reprise from a guest gig I did at the blog of writer Jim Thompson, Jimland. In case you missed it there:

In the beginning was the word.

Well, one cent a word, to be exact. Or sometimes twenty-five cents for a column-inch of them.

And we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But with my newspapers that was literally true: ten dollars per each 5×7 black and white shot.

Hemingway developed his terse, adjective-free style writing cable dispatches from the front lines of the early twentieth century. I developed a flatulent, baroque style on the front lines of padded per-word journalism. I was a budding feuilletonist even before I knew what that word meant.

My life in crime began with travel articles for my local newspaper, the Seaside Signal. What did the folks back home make of my stories about the bird lady of Stadt Park, or the vintner down the street from my Viennese lodgings who was stuck with a 20,000 liter vat full of 1942 Muller Thurgau which had turned to pickle juice, or the ennui of thirty-two hours on the Orient Express?

My mom loved them. I earned twenty-five bucks a pop with a photo. That money went a long way in Vienna at the time. And I could actually, in all honesty, write Freiwilliger Journalist on my Austrian registry card instead of Student. A freelance journalist was almost a writer.

Soon I came up with a journalistic pyramid scheme: If my hometown paper was willing to fork over that kind of money for a local-boy-abroad story, why couldn’t I take advantage of that same public-minded spirit with every small-town newspaper in the States?

These were the days before 24-7 cable news, before the Internet offered snippets of news lifted from every reputable newspaper, thereby destroying said newspapers’ reader base. These were the days of flourishing independent dailies and weeklies all over America. Mom and pop journalism in a country otherwise run by Safeway.

The plan: Europe was full of American tourists. Even my tiny corner of it in Austria was bristling with Kodak-toting couples and families from every state in the union. You always knew the Americans. An Austrian friend once told me he knew at once I was an Ami simply because of my loose gait. Europeans never saunter–well, at least back then they did not. Europeans back then were also rarely over six foot. And there was that nagging issue of volume and volubility.

Back to the plan: I determined to interview Americans I encountered, write up a little story of their travels, get a picture or two, and then send said unsolicited article to their local paper. At twenty-five bucks a pop, I would be living fat in no time.

I was only twenty-two. Sweet innocence.

In fact, a number of newspapers did respond with checks, which, once taken to my local Laenderbank, would be cleared in a matter of days and exchanged for hard schillings. But there were never enough checks to really live on. The emphasis is on free in freelance.

Soon I found work as an in-house mailman at one of the UN offices in town. Between rounds I would work on my first novel. Occasionally checks came in from Modesto or Cherry Hills. Largely I forgot about my scheme, though, caught up in work and new friends. One of the latter hailed from a small town in Ohio. He wore a blue uniform; I wore a white lab coat. That meant I was one grade higher.

George and his singer wife had just arrived in Vienna. She was a coloratura, he played bass. It was a good friendship–still is, in fact.

I mentioned that small town in Ohio. That is called foreshadowing. Calling your attention to it is called postmodernism. I footnote it, I get more critical kudos.

Turns out George’s mother is an avid reader of the local newspaper and one day she spots a story about the local librarian who was traveling in Vienna. Written by a fellow called Jones who lives in Vienna. Next time she writes to her son, George’s mom asks, “Ever heard of this Jones?”

I never took greater pleasure in writing a letter than I did that one to the small town Ohio newspaper. Turns out they never paid me for that story they ran. It was grand fun describing to them the duties of the fourth estate, how they are the beacon of truth and objectivity, how they are the very glue of a democracy.

Two weeks later a check for fifty dollars appeared in my letterbox in the foyer.

The WORD had just gone up in value.

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We are continuing our ongoing series of Cold War Vienna tales.  It should be noted that Fred is a gung-ho patriot who called in friendly fire on his own position in Korea to stop the Chinese from overrunning it.

I stared at him, not so much shocked at his proposition as amused. There was a long silence, during which he lit another of his cheap oval cigarettes and then pinched tobacco crumbs from his white-coated tongue.

Finally I said, “I hate to state the obvious, but there are actual, real-life, card-carrying, Moscow communists working there right along with folks from our side. We all have access to the same information. I mean, who’s spying on who?”

“Whom.” He smiled.

Fred, the sudden grammarian. With whorls of black hair growing out his ears, with a clip-on tie, with his short-sleeve polyester shirts. Fred, correcting my grammar.

“What’s to spy on?” I insisted.

Fred sighed, raised an eyebrow and peered around the half-empty café. “Maybe we could keep it down a bit. Walls have ears.” He tapped his nose, not his ear, and then made his Thonet chair groan as he shifted his bulk from buttock to buttock.

“It’s like this, Jon.” Now he stretched his ham fists out on the table, constructing imaginary squares as he spoke. The knuckles bristled with rather long black hairs.

“We are in a life and death struggle here. Make no mistake about it. No laughing matter. The commies do not like us. They want to bury us. Forget this crap about day-taunt and thaw. They mean to do us in, okay? Doesn’t matter what the name of the bozo is who’s in the Kremlin, they are all our enemies.”

“Fred…” I began.

A pudgy mitt shot up, palm outward, to cut me off.

“I know what you’re going to say. Hey, I’ve got your file here.” He knuckled a manila folder lying on the tiny round marble table separating us. There were coffee rings on the folder’s cover, interlocking brown ovals like an abstract of moonrise.

“Against Vietnam, protested at major demonstrations. Who’s to say, maybe you kids had it right.”

“No maybe,” I blurted out, but was immediately sorry I’d let that button be pushed. I was away from all that. Thousands of miles away.

“Well, we’re getting our sorry asses out of there as we speak. But I’m not one of those narrow-minded guys figures because a person criticizes his government he’s not patriotic, right? I figure you and your generation, hell, you love America as much as anybody else. And given the chance, given the right opportunity, you’d be prepared to show that love. Am I right?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re perfectly situated. It’s a dream job.”

“Fred, no.”

“I mean all the information has to pass through your hands one way or another.”

I slapped down a twenty-schilling bill to pay for my achtel of wine and wurst sandwich. “Bye.”

He was jerked out of his salesman reverie.

“You going?”

“You haven’t been listening. No. Nein. Niyet.”

“We’ll be seeing you, Jon,” he said to my back as I left.

***

“Longish lunch break,” Herr Frisch said when I got back to the agency. Conspiratorial rather than censoring. Frisch was known for his two-hour lunches, for coffee breaks that stretched to quitting time as he played one more hand of Tarok.

Frisch was the new breed of Wiener, but cut of the same old cloth. Hip and wise to the ways of the world, he vacationed on the Dalmatian coast while most of his compatriots val-de-ree’ed in the so-called “house” Alps at Semmering. As if mountains could be domesticated, made tame simply by proximity. He ate at Balkan or Chinese restaurants rather than the local gasthaus with the perennial schnitzel. He dressed in Italian slacks and French shirts under the white lab coat.

But he was Wiener to the quick. His job–cushy by Viennese standards–was merely a means to a lifestyle. For Frisch, there was never anything truly serious about his occupation; urgencies were for doctors. He wore a permanent sardonic grin on his face, as if privileged to an inside joke none of the rest of us had heard. The situation may be desperate, but it was never, never serious.

“They were recruiting me for the CIA,” I said.

His eyebrows lifted to show mild amusement. “I hope you accepted. The pay, I hear, is quite good.”

“Right. I’ll remember that.”

He winked to show he understood my joke about the CIA.

“She wants to see you again.” He shoved an inter-agency memo across the check-in desk to me.

“Christ.”

“She finds you charming,” Frisch said. “You should be flattered.”

“I should be knighted.”

“Ah, for service above and beyond, I assume.”

Service being the apposite word.

***

“Shut the door, Herr St. Denis.”

Her office on the third floor was dimly lit as usual. Through a half-open window I could hear the trams going by on the Ring below. It had an unpleasant odor, despite the open window: heavy rose-scented perfume overlaid with smoke from her Dames cigarettes. She chewed mints as she smoked.

Frau Luschner was not a bad looking woman, all told. Not for a forty-five-year-old. Her hair was jet black and worn pulled severely back, twirled into a tiny ball at the base of her neck. I remembered the shiver of expectation the first time I undid that tightly coiled ball of hair and let it fall over her alabaster shoulders.

Now it seemed more duty than desire.

“I am informed you have broken agency regulations of non-disclosure.” She looked at me sternly as I crossed from the door to her desk.

How they hell could she know about my interview with Fred, I thought, and then as quickly realized that this was part of her games. Reprimand and snoggle, perhaps. Or was it the old punishment gambit? Luschner loved role-play. A thwarted thespian, like most Viennese, she turned our love-making into theater.

“I really should report you to the secretary general,” she went on. “But, perhaps there is some other arrangement we could come to.”

She stood suddenly, unbuttoning her prim white blouse, moving around the acre of desk toward me. Her blouse, open to the navel, exposed a flat belly and melon breasts encased in an apricot colored lacy bra. She began hitching up her skirt, showing firm legs encased in black nylons, a smidge of cellulite bulge over the tops where they were held up by a red garter belt. Battle dress. We were in for a long afternoon, I figured.

***

Frisch twinkled his lizard eyes at me when I finally returned to the library.

“You have great staying power, my friend. In your case, youth is not wasted on the young.”

Frisch had once been a Luschner protégé. It was her sport, cultivating young men who applied for work with the agency, flattering them with her attention, getting them a cushy position and then using them–me, now–like an ambulatory dildo.

It had worked like a charm with me. I’d never been what you’d call a winner with the ladies, not in America. Too shy. Too sensitive. Too whatever. Or not enough whatever.

So when Luschner came on to me during our interview, I was flattered. Here was this worldly woman with a beauty mole on her cheek making nice with me, complimenting me on my penmanship on the application form, for my sense of calm during the interview, for… Oh, darn it all, just take off your pants.

Not quite that gauche, but that was the gist of it. I never realized I might be striking one of those Faustian bargains my English professors used to natter on about. Sex in exchange for employment. Sex in exchange for promotion. Sex in exchange for continued employment.

I didn’t really think of myself in connection with the P word. Prostitutes were women you found in the mean streets around the Prater. Neither did I consider the G word for my situation. Gigolos wore gold-plated neck chains and knock-off Rolexes.

Frau Direktor Luschner and I were having an affair, a grand, grown-up term, I thought. Except that we never met outside of the agency. Our afternoon sex sessions were secret assignations.

“You’d better hope she finds a new employee soon,” Frisch commented as I gathered my book truck to re-shelve reports from the Turkish atomic energy commission’s annual general meeting. “You’re looking peeked.”

“I’m tutoring her in English,” I insisted. “You shouldn’t judge others by your own low standards, Frisch.”

“I’ve noted the improvement in her gerunds,” he said dryly. “No but sincerely, Saint Dennis…”

St. Denis.” Pronounced in the French manner.

“Certainly. With the greatest sincerity and compassion for your dilemma, I recommend you scout new recruits for the good Frau. That way she can drop you, there will be no vile recriminations nor unspoken threats of retribution. However, were you to finally tire of your unwritten contractual obligations, or to, God forbid, find a real girlfriend who might object to certain stains in your pants when you come home from work, well, then….” He waved a well-manicured hand in the air to denote all bets would be off.

“Harmless English lessons, Frisch.”

“There is nothing harmless about Frau Direktor Luschner, my friend. She is the Austrian version of a vampire.”

***

Frisch was right, of course. There really was nowhere to hide behind euphemisms any longer. I had been under Luschner’s protective wing now for six months, during which time I had risen from lowly messenger boy at the agency to second in command at the library. By the second week I had understood that our trysts were far from romantic. One afternoon last month I had actually had the temerity to come late for one of our meetings, needing to finish filling an urgent request from the Indians on roentgen analysis statistics. One would think that Luschner, director of personnel at the agency, would understand such professionalism. Instead she gave me such a dressing down that I was unable to perform. The ever inventive Luschner, however, found other ways for me to please her.

Yes, Frosch was right. I had to face it: I was a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession. And like all members of that fraternity or sorority, I blamed others for my situation. She had taken advantage of my naïvete; she had misled me; she was manipulative. All true, but now the blinders were off, had been for weeks, and what was I going to do about it?

Problem was, I needed the job and the steady paycheck. I had expenses. Musical lessons do not come cheap in the capital of music, and I was here to become a musician. The cello is my instrument, but I also play piano and viola. Overhead also included an apartment in an apartment house that appreciated musicians and did not look upon me as a threat to one’s sleep.

And then there was Ursula, Uschi. My new girl. A fellow music student–violin, we met playing a Bach trio. Our relationship had progressed to the petting stage. Sweet and innocent Uschi from that Appalachia of Austria, the Waldviertel, but not at all damaged by the experience nor overly inbred. To come from the steamy embraces of Luschner to the fresh-cut grass sweetness of Uschi was becoming a contrast I could no longer abide. As if I were sullying the girl by my touch. And I am sure Uschi would not understand the conflicted nature of my relationship with the older woman, twice her age.

Yes, Frisch was right. Something had to be done.

***

“Well, Jon, I was wondering when you’d get back in touch with us.”

“You seemed pretty certain of yourself.”

“I’m a good judge of character.” Fred smiled at me.

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We continue with personal reminiscences of Cold War Vienna:

Vienna Rathaus or City Hall

Vienna was my Paris. From the late 1960s through the 1980s I made it my home, my workshop, my personal museum. I became a writer there coasting on the strong dollar: a krügel, or pint of beer was a quarter; dinner, a schnitzel so big it hung over the sides of a large porcelain plate, was a couple of bucks; rent a room for thirty dollars, a studio apartment for sixty. The Vienna Woods was a tram ride away, another quarter.

I was, in short, an elective ex-pat.

But there were others who were in Vienna out of pure raw necessity.

Ubhani was one of these. They called him the man in the tower.

I met him when I was working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–pure grunt work of getting documents filed and boxed for the annual conference at the Hofburg. It was a good gig: tax-free dollar payment and commissary privileges. I worked the conference every summer, saved up the money, and could go to Venice for part of the fall, the mountains of Styria for the winter. We usually worked out of the cellars in the Hofburg, but one summer I got a different assignment.

It was the Rathaus, City Hall, for me. The rabbit warrens we called it, where document overflow from IAEA headquarters on the Ring (no ultra-modern U.N. City across the Danube in those days) were stored. The U.N. rented the space from city hall officials; Vienna was happy to take the extra money.

And the man in the tower was in charge of that tinderbox. I hated the Rathaus detail; it scared the crap out of me. The docs section was on the top floor up a long and winding staircase. One way up, one way down. No fire escape. And the place was filled floor to ceiling with dusty, yellowing paper documents.

I got to know Ubhani that summer.

The first time I met him, the burn scars on his face–tight and smooth like oil on water–made me wince. But you couldn’t look at those scars long; something else drew your attention. It was the eyes. Blue, deep Alpine-lake blue.

Ubhani was African, a refugee from Biafra; he’d fought on the losing side.

We worked the first few days together in relative silence, gathering requested docs from a dizzying array of stacks, the organizational logic to which only Ubhani was privy. He’d been in charge of the Rathaus docs for several years now–no one else could tolerate that claustrophobic, dusty, windowless environment.

Finally he opened to me, mostly I guess because I did not ask questions or stare at his scars and startling blue eyes.

And this is what he told me.

Ubhani had been in the Nigerian military for years, a tank commander. He retired for a time, became a mercenary fighting in brush wars in Africa. In one such conflict he was able to liberate (his word) several gold bars from a bank. He was set. He returned to his village in southeastern Nigeria, married his childhood sweetheart, built the biggest damn house for miles around, and had a family.

Hofburg

Then came the Nigerian Civil War. The region where Ubhani lived was part of the state of Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, prompting all-out conflict. Ubhani, an Igbo, felt compelled to come to the aid of his people. He led a tank battalion for the Biafran army. But the Biafrans stood little chance from the start. Encircled, the fledgling state held out for several years of fierce fighting. He lost his home; his family was killed by national troops. He and his men had little to eat; he had to drink his own urine at time for want of water. Finally, surrounded in a battle, his tank was hit and he was badly burned before he could get out, blinded by the fire.

But he was saved. The Red Cross airlifted him out to neutral Austria, where he was cared for. A blue-eyed teen from Klagenfurt died in a motorcycle accident, and Ubhani inherited his vision, having a corneal transplant that kept him totally immobilized for several months until the transplant set.

Slowly, slowly, he recovered, trying all the while not to think of the family and way of life he had lost forever in Biafra. Then, after six months in the Viennese hospital, Ubhani was declared healed. He was given the burned and ragged fatigues he wore upon arrival and also a one-way air ticket to Lagos.

Austria had done its job. Ubhani was going home.

Except that he couldn’t. A firing squad awaited him there. So he cashed in the ticket and stayed on in Vienna illegally. The Americans, he thought, might give him refugee status. But at the American embassy he was only offered a free pass to Vietnam: fight for two tours and you get citizenship, they told him. Problem was, Ubhani had to wear glasses with his new eyes. Glasses spell death for a front line soldier–snipers can spot you from the glint. He drank the proffered glass of Johnny Walker and left the embassy.

The Brits, French, and Swiss embassies were no help, either. It was late fall now, and Ubhani was still in his summer

The Modern UN City

fatigues. Being black in Vienna in the early 1970s was hard: you were a rarity, someone to be stared at. But being black in ragged clothes and living on the streets, Ubhani became an object of hatred. Kids spat at him; old ladies thwacked him with their black umbrellas.

Fall turned to early winter and Ubhani could no longer sleep rough in the Prater. His last ditch effort was a visit to the IAEA. The guard on duty by the main door did not allow him to enter at first, but he was a fellow ex-military guy and Ubhani told him his sorry tale. The guard allowed him to clean up in the basement restrooms and then got him in to see personnel.

It turns out, just that day the Rathaus docs section had been approved. It needed someone to organize it; someone desperate enough to take a job in miserable airless conditions.

That was Ubhani.

I always wondered how he managed to climb those narrow stairs to work each day after having been trapped in a burning tank.

I never asked him though. Ubhani was not the sort of man you asked questions of.

So we worked together that summer, the ex-pat and the blue-eyed refugee–the man in the tower.

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A "Flakturm" or flack tower--symbol of post-war Vienna

I am reprising this post I wrote for BookPage blog earlier this year upon publication of the second novel in my Viennese Mystery series, Requiem in Vienna. It explains, in part, how I came to use Vienna as a setting for much of my fiction. Vienna of the 1960s and 1970s was a schizophrenic city: living in both the post-war and Cold War era.

It took me two, maybe three weeks to figure it out.

At first I thought it might be a shopkeeper I did occasional business with. That would explain why he looked so familiar. The butcher on Langegasse or the wine merchant in the Altstadt. He had the same general features: slight build, medium height, light brown hair and eyes, gray overcoat. Nothing stood out. A figure that blends into the background.

I would catch sight of him across the Josefstaedterstrasse on my way to the language institute where I taught; see his reflection in a store window on Graben and he would quickly turn away; pass by him leaving the Stadtbahn station, his back to me, his head buried in a day-old issue of the Kurier. Once I actually came upon him talking with my building portier, a guilty look on both their faces.

This was the Vienna of several decades ago. It was still the Cold War. Foreigners living in Vienna fit into a risk

Graham Greene made the giant Ferris wheel another symbol of post-war Vienna

category for the state police, anxious to protect Austria’s neutrality. It did not help that a childhood friend, also living in Vienna at the time, had become involved in a nationalist cause in Yugoslavia.

Still, until I discovered that I had my very own watcher, I had been living in another make-believe Vienna of schlagobers and Mozart. I had believed the tourist propaganda of the city of dreams and waltz.

My watcher stayed with me for over half a year, until I moved on for a time to Greece. Returning to Vienna the next fall, I no longer saw him or sensed his presence. But it was a wake up for me. I began to look at the underside of Vienna after the watcher; seeing the city as not only beautiful, but also treacherous. It is a vision that has remained with me, informing all of my writing about Vienna.

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