Back in 2010, some guy hid behind a car at a football game, took a picture of me and my wife, and posted it on a message board. I’m still not sure why he did it. I guess he thought it would be funny, like a Bigfoot sighting or something.
When I saw the picture on the message board, I kind of freaked out. Sure, it was a rather innocuous shot, but it kind of had this stalker vibe, like the scene in gangster movies where the mob figures out the location of some guy in witness protection and sends the photo to the FBI as a taunt.
Yes, I overreacted. I admit that. I also admit that I probably would have been one of the prevailing cooler heads if not for my Austrian adventure the year before.
Let me tell you that story.
… and by the time we got on the train, my travel wallet was gone.
I had made the mistake of putting my wallet in the thigh pocket of my cargo shorts after purchasing ice cream on Kärtnerstrasse. Easy pickings for a group of trained thieves.
Here’s where the paranoia kicks in.
According to the Vienna police, the way local thieves work in the city is that one thief spies the mark, then texts his buddies to converge, distract, and conquer. In other words, these four clowns had alerted each other from different points in the metro station, tracked me like four miniature Jack Bauers, and then worked as a team to “take me out.”
It’s a creepy feeling, knowing that there are evil people in the world watching you, keeping their other evil buddies in the loop via Twitter. Thank God the government doesn’t do that, right?
Anyway, you see why I freaked out over a stupid photo on the internet. I was still carrying a bit of that post-Austria paranoia.
This skill came in handy when that day I got robbed in Vienna.
Shortly after the robbery, my wife was on one of our cell phones, canceling credit cards and checking bank balances. I was on the other phone, dialing the private line to my home office back in Kansas.
Hank, my faithful Norwegian forest cat, answered on the second ring.
“What’s up, boss?” he asked. He always called me boss no matter how much I insisted we were actually partners.
“I’ve been robbed,” I said. “Where’s Mr. Abrams?”
I was referring, of course, to our Maine coon cat who works as my wife’s personal assistant and pretty much runs the house when we are gone.
“He figured out the password on mom’s computer.” He always called my wife mom. “He’s been watching cat videos on YouTube for the last twelve hours.”
“Get him on the phone.”
I heard Hank’s cat paws clack the floor as he padded away, reminding me that I had forgotten to clip his claws before we left.
Finally, Mr. Abrams came on the line.
“Hey,” said Mr. Abrams.
“Enjoying those cat videos?”
“What I do on my free time is my business.”
“We’ve been robbed,” I said.
“What did they take?” Mr. Abrams asked.
“Money, passports, driver’s license … everything. They even took my Triple-A card.”
“Calm down, man,” the cat said. “Hank and I are on it. We’ll get the others on it too.”
I heard his paws tapping on my computer’s keyboard, which was right next to the phone.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m looking up the address of the US consulate in Vienna.” There was more tapping sound, and then he said: “Good news: the consulate is close to your hotel. Bad news: it closes at five. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Keep it cool,” my cat said. “I told you, Hank and I are on it. We’ll make some calls.”
In the world of cats, I knew what “make some calls” meant.
After filing a report with the police, my wife and I went back to the hotel and sat around stewing. On the TV, Austria was losing to Cameroon in a World Cup qualifying match. We’d been to Cameroon two years prior, so it made me kind of happy. After all, nobody robbed me in Cameroon; they just gave me dysentery.
“You are Matt?” the old guy asked in a slight East Europe accent.
“I’m Matt,” I said. “Hate the shirt.” I went to Kansas State.
“Hank and Mr. Abrams send me. I am Holly.”
“Holly. Isn’t that a girl’s name?”
“It can be man’s name as well. Come.”
I pulled on some clothes and let my wife sleep in. Holly and I took the elevator to the ground floor, and then I followed him across the street to the Floridsdorf Metro Station.
“You buy ticket,” he said.
“Are you kidding me? I was robbed last night.”
“Ach! Fine, I buy ticket.”
He scraped up some change from his jeans pocket and purchased two tickets. Once we were on the train, I spoke.
“So my cats back in Kansas called you?”
“We all stay in touch,” said Holly.
“What kind of name is Holly for a guy?” I said, and then it hit me. “Of course, we’re in Vienna. Holly Martins. The Third Man. Are you a fan?”
“No kidding? What part did you play?”
“You know the cat that rub leg of Orson Welles? Very famous scene.”
“I know the one. That cat was you?”
“That was 60 years ago,” I said. “Most cats don’t live past 20. How are you still here?”
“I turn into man more than I turn into cat,” said Holly. “Man live longer than cat, you know.”
The Metro had several stops, but when we got to Praterstern, Holly stood up. “We go,” he said.
“Aren’t we going to the consulate?”
“No, we go somewhere else.”
When we came out of the Metro station, I saw in the distance the towering Wiener Reisenrad, the famous Ferris wheel that featured in The Third Man’s other memorable scene. We were nearing the Prater amusement park.
“We’re not going up in that, are we?”
“No, we go there.” He pointed over to a small shop that I recognized from that James Bond movie The Living Daylights. The shop was closed because it was still early.
Four salty-looking men who all looked like Hank Azaria were waiting in front of the shop for us.
When we approached, Holly started talking to them in Deutsch. One of the Azaria gang, the one who looked most like Azaria in America’s Sweethearts, replied in kind.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“I tell them you are the one they steal from yesterday,” said Holly. “I ask him to return what he steal.”
“What did he say?”
“He say he be delighted.”
I looked as the lead Azaria reached in his back pocket and pulled out my fat travel wallet. He tossed it on the sidewalk in front of my feet. I stooped and picked it up.
Inside, I found our passports, my driver’s license, our credit cards (which had now all been canceled), and our Triple-A card.
“We’re missing something,” I said.
Holly spoke to the man in Deutsch, and the man spoke back.
“He say everything is as he find it,” said Holly.
“I had 500 Euro,” I said. “What happened to that?”
Holly said something to the lead Azaria. The man shook his head.
“I know I had 500 Euro,” I said. “You must have seen it when I brought my wallet out to pay for the ice cream on Kärtnerstrasse. That’s why you guys hit me, right? Because you saw the money. Now I want it back.”
The lead Azaria shouted in Deutsch and reached in his pocket. Something long and silvery flicked out from his fingers. It looked like a stiletto, maybe four inches long.
He stepped toward me, swinging the blade in front of his chest.
“He say we need to go now,” said Holly, backing away. “I say we listen to him.”
“Not without my money.”
I looked at the leader of the Azaria gang. I remembered one self-defense move that my father taught me, a move he had learned while serving in the Navy. It was used if a man was coming at you with a knife.
On instinct, I tried the self-defense move Dad had taught me. I swung my arm just the right way, twisted the knife out of the lead Azaria’s hand, and got him in a headlock.
His three friends saw this and slowly began to advance.
“Stand back,” I said. “Tell them to stand back, Holly, or I’ll break his neck.” I had no idea if I meant it.
Holly shouted to them in Deutsch.
Suddenly, the man that I was holding in a headlock began to change. He shifted in my grasp and squirmed. I felt his clothes drop away, and suddenly, I was holding an American Shorthair cat in my arms.
I looked at his three friends. All of them had changed as well. Three cats--two gray Pixie-bobs and a beige Turkish Van--now sat on the sidewalk, mewling hungrily.
I dropped the American Shorthair. He landed on all fours and ran over to join his friends in the chorus of meows.
“Fine,” I grunted. “Keep the damn money!”
I've never been back to Vienna.