The Wrong Girl

By: David Hewson

Det. Pieter Vos 02


There was something new on the front deck of the houseboat. Standing tall amid the dead plants, rotting timber and scattered tools, she rose like a glittering beacon over the winter-grey waters of the Prinsengracht: a life-size silver plastic ballerina twirling on slender legs, twinkling coloured lights and tinsel round her neck.

Pieter Vos’s little terrier Sam sat at the statue’s feet wondering whether to growl or lick the thing. He had a string of multicoloured tinsel wound through his collar over the tight, tough fur. And didn’t much like it.

The third Sunday of November. Christmas was around the corner, and Sinterklaas was on his way. He’d already finished the long journey from Spain and boarded his ceremonial barge up the Amstel river. It was two fifteen.

Vos, as a duty brigadier for the second shift of the day, would have familiar company for this welcome interlude in the calendar of the Amsterdam police. Two of his plain-clothes officers of different sometimes conflicting generations. Dirk Van der Berg, the easy-going, beer-loving detective, a Marnixstraat fixture in his mid-forties, was patting the little dog, cooing affectionate words. Laura Bakker, just turned twenty-five, a recent newcomer from Friesland, stood in a heavy winter coat, long red hair falling round her shoulders, glaring at the object in the bows. Vos glanced at his own clothes: the usual navy donkey jacket, fading jeans, ageing trainers. He’d meant to have his hair cut during the week but went to see a Danish movie instead. So the curly dark locks still hung loose over his collar and got him a filthy look from Frank de Groot, the station commissaris, from time to time.

It was seven months now since a curious murder case centred round a museum doll’s house had dragged him out of a dreary, lost existence in his houseboat, back into the Amsterdam police. Some things had changed since then. A few hadn’t.

‘What in God’s name’s that?’ Bakker asked.

‘I like it!’ Van der Berg declared before the argument could begin. ‘Whatever it is . . .’

Bakker clumped down the gangplank in her heavy boots, pulled a white envelope out of the postbox without asking, then thrust the letter at Vos. It bore the stamp of the city council.

‘I bet this is another warning about the state of this thing. They’ll fine you if you don’t fix it up properly.’

‘I am fixing it up . . .’

She looked at the blackened, broken cabin, the windows held together by tape and shook her head.

‘They were throwing her out from one of the shops round the corner,’ Vos added, pointing at the ballerina. ‘I thought she sort of fitted.’

‘She does,’ Van der Berg declared. He glanced hopefully across the road at the Drie Vaten cafe on the corner of Elandsgracht. Vos’s local was the neighbourhood brown bar, black brick exterior, bare plank floor, rickety seats, open most of the day and busy already. The place the neighbourhood gravitated to when it needed good beer, a snack, a coffee and some idle conversation. A second home for plenty of locals, among them thirsty police officers from their Marnixstraat headquarters at the top of Elandsgracht. ‘Is there time for . . . ?’

‘We’re on duty!’ Bakker said, throwing up her long arms in despair.

Van der Berg was a heavyset man with a friendly, somewhat battered face. He looked offended.

‘We don’t go on duty for another fifteen minutes. I was about to say . . . is there time for a coffee?’

‘Not really,’ Vos said with a shake of his head.

A busy but agreeable day ahead. Sinterklaas, a beaming, friendly saint with a white beard, was set to mark his arrival in Amsterdam with a parade so celebrated it would be watched live on television throughout the Netherlands. Today the crowds would run into three hundred thousand or more, and the police presence would top four figures. The city centre was closed to all traffic as a golden barge bore Sinterklaas down the Amstel river, surrounded by a throng of private boats full of families trying to get close. Then he’d transfer to a white stallion for a procession through the city, ending at Leidseplein. There, welcomed by the mayor, he’d address the massed crowds from the balcony of the municipal theatre. Zwarte Pieten, Black Petes, companions to Saint Nicholas, would follow him everywhere, faces dark with make-up, curly black wigs, ruby lips, grinning in medieval costumes with ruff collars and feathered mob caps, handing out spicy sweets to every passing youngster they could find – and baffling foreign visitors who could scarcely believe their eyes.

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