A Modern Sherlock Holmes story
PROLOGUE: GOING DUTCH
The year’s ’99. In a hotel bar in Amsterdam the Barista is a hot redhead in a polka dot summer dress, evidencing a certain Dutch diffidence for the weather outside: “Welcome to the Hobo Chang. Would you like a menu?”
“Oh… thank you.” Doesn’t seem to be anything not in some way intoxicating on this menu. Well, what could it hurt? A detective needs to be able to think around corners.
Holmes picks up his pipe… no tobacco, naturally. Gave up back in ’94. Can’t stand the sight of the stuff. Hands over a few euros. Puffs away reflexively. Places the odd-looking Dutch hat he bought from a flea-market on his head. Makes ready as if to leave. And then casually: “Have you been working here long?”
“Since I was old enough?”
“Not that long then. Splendid. I thought so. But long enough…”
“English. But where are my manners? Sherlock Holmes. I’m from London. You should visit some time.” Tossing her a pound coin.
“Wouldn’t mind! I’m Katya. From Alkmaar.”
“I don’t suppose you happen to if the proprietor of this place is around, Katya? I used to know him, years ago.”
“Oh, Piet? He’ll be back soon. You can wait for him, if you like. Have you seen our basement?”
“Uh – my mother told me never to go into basements with strange Dutch women.”
“But you want to see this one,” she winks at him.
* * *
In the basement of the Hobo Chang a glass tank fills one half of the room. Too large to have been got down the narrow stairway, Holmes has noticed, so it must have been assembled here, by somebody who knew what they were doing. Individual panes of reinforced acrylic: Bulletproof. Stronger than glass. And clearer.
Piet Verbeek, the old local known as “The Skipper,” sits at a low table drinking coffee, as the machinery that controls temperature, PH levels and salinity hums beside him. Tropical fauna of all colours shapes and sizes dart and dance in the water while corals sway gently:
“If you want to find someone there’s a thing called the Internet now. Why don’t you ask Jeeves?”
“I’m looking for a man called Pember. I believe he has reasons for living, ah, under the radar.
The Dutchman’s knarled face wrinkles.
“I heard he was a dope dealer in Amsterdam. Do you know him well?”
“I know of him by reputation.”
“I see. I don’t know you that well, Mister Holmes. So there isn’t much I can tell you. But it seems there’s some bad Karma surrounding your Mister Pember I heard he’d met a bad end.”
“And if I did know you? Would there be a price I could pay for the full information?” the englishman grins, brandishing the euros.
Holmes can hardly believe that someone like Verbeek, who’s swum in the Amsterdam underworld for so long, might be afraid of someone. And yet he’s hiding something for somebody, here.
“There was a murder, then? At least one. Wait. Don’t tell me! More than one! At least one committed by Pember! That’s it, isn’t it? Was his a revenge killing, then?”
“Hmm. You always did love a good mystery, But it’s not as simple as that. He was capable of it – I don’t doubt that for a second. I’ve never seen a man with a drive to get things done like Pember. But that’s not why he’s a dead man.”
“Here’s what I know: he first appeared in Amsterdam around ten years ago. He used to sell dope to all the coffee shops in Amsterdam. Rumour has it he owned a greenhouse somewhere, maybe out towards the sea, hidden away.”
“Ten years? And his wife never even knew about it? What kind of double life was he leading?”
“His wife never knew he was here?”
“She’s the one who engaged me to find him. She hasn’t seen him in nearly five years. As far as she knew, he was a stage magician in London.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I never joke about my work.”
“The thing is, no one gets rich off the pot business in Amsterdam. Or, almost no one. Well-paid hobbyists at best. The thing to know is, the industry here is not legal, but it’s tolerated. You don’t cause trouble, they leave you alone. But Pember – Pember was something else. To refuse to deal with the man was a bad idea. And he was protected -”
“Protected? By who?”
“That I can’t tell you.”
“Can’t – or won’t?”
“I’ve said too much already. All I know is that if Pember moved on, he had plans to get into the pot business in America. Legalisation is coming there – within a decade or so. If it did, he stood to become a very wealthy man indeed. That’s why someone killed him. He was the kind who was always one step ahead, your Mister Pember. That’s why certain three-letter agencies wanted him out of the way. They want to ensure those they represent control the business.”
“Quite so. No one likes to take an un-necessary risk.”
Outside in the rain, from a pay-phone Holmes telephones his brother Mycroft, a civil servant, a decade and a half his elder:
“Mycroft. I need to know if MI6 was every running Arthur Pember as an asset.”
“Pember? The stage magician? No contact for two years, Sherlock, and now this? I don’t believe I have that piece of information.”
“Then ask around at the ministry. Somebody must know. He was a famous magician.”
“Oh yes. He disappeared, didn’t he? Quite a good trick.”
“Mycroft, he may have murdered someone.”
“Then it would certainly be foolish to go after someone mixed up in that sort of thing. Good bye, Sherlock.”
The click of a phone somewhere by the south bank of the Thames being hung up, Sherlock turning around in despair, catching a sight of himself in a travel agent’s shop window. Bedraggled. And somewhere out there, there’s a killer. But who? And who was murdered? In the shop window a photograph of palm trees, that sway lazily in the coast wind beneath a rocky shore line. Somewhere out there in the sun lies the answer. If one were only motivated to find it.
“Who indeed?” he asks himself.
To be continued