WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, chapter 2
I was still breathing hard when I reached the Arti. I had just been in a bicycle race. It had been unexpected and even the "challenge" to the race had been subtle. I had passed a bike rider on an old clunker which was making more noise than a 25 year old jalopy on its last legs. But from the moment I had passed the rider I never lost sound of him. We had continued down the streets and over the bridges and at one point he streaked by me. By that time, I was breathing so hard that I wasn't seeing straight. After locking up the bike, I took out my tobacco and rice papers and rolled a cigarette. Took a few healthy drags of the dark Van Nelle Export and started coughing. Damn.
I had an appointment, but due to the race I was a bit early. Bert, we called him "Hog" behind his back, had called me that afternoon to say that there was someone he knew who wanted to talk with me. It was business. My "business,"---if you can call it that---is being a PI, that's a simple acronym for "private investigator," or "private eye" if you prefer. The English would refer to me as a "sleuth." What it all means is that I do detective like things. Basically the "things" in question tend to be things that the police don't do like investigating a potential employee's background or a wandering spouses wayward travels. When I work, it pays well. The problem is the work is unsteady. But, over a year, I seem to clear enough to support a secretary two days a week, a small office in an old Amsterdam jailhouse and keep up with my alimony and child support.
I was sitting at the bar when I saw the Hog come through the door. He was big, very big and hard to miss. He lumbered over to me and I asked if he wanted a beer? Dumb question to put to the Hog, he always wanted a beer even when he was holding a half-filled glass in his hand. "Thank you, Cord, I don't mind if I do." The beers arrived and we went through the common ceremony of clicking glasses and wishing each other "proost" whatever that meant. The Hog got right down to it. "This man I want you to meet is an art collector, but an unusual art collector. He is not rich, nor is he poor. His monetary means are, I guess, what you would call adequate. Did you know every art collector is different, Cord?"
"Different? How do you mean Bert? Everyone is different from another it is the way of the homo sapiens."
"With collectors, there are no two alike. It is not only their taste in artists or styles that differs, but the nuances of collecting. Nothing before or after a certain date; only something in black and white; only oil paintings of cows; and so on and so on. He is different from most collectors because of the 'way' and the 'how' of his collecting. He is interested in everything, but only if it is at a price that you would label 'a steal,' as you Americans would put it. He searches the auction houses looking for the overlooked masterpiece." My facial reactions must have been one of disbelieve because he said, "Oh, yes, people do look for masterpieces at auction houses. Even today. And sometimes they find them."
"But I thought the auction houses employed experts."
"Of course, they do, Cord. But those are the larger houses. There are also small ones and those that are what is referred to as "liquidation" auction houses. Everything they offer must be sold. There is no buy-in. Do you know the term?"
"Yeah, I think so. I think it is also called a "reserve price."
"Yes, that is true. But at a Dutch auction house---that is a liquidation place---if an opening bid of 100 guilders goes unanswered the auctioneer drops the sum to 50 guilders. If still unanswered, to 25 or 30 guilders. Why I bought an oil painting once for five guilders. No one wanted it. But...Oh, there he is now---"
An old man that was dressed like a dandy and carrying a cane had come through the door. The Hog was up and headed towards him. I followed a short distance behind. Once along the man's side, Bert turned to me and said, "This is Meneer Jan Jansen, Wes," and turning to the man and Hog said, "This is Meneer Wes Cord, the man I have told you about." The man lead us to a table. Once we were seated, Bert offered him a drink and the man asked for a jenever and added, "Have them put it on my tab, Bert. Please bring a round for Meneer Cord and yourself...of course." The man obviously knew Bert as well as I did. Bert never bought you a drink nor paid for his own at least not when anyone was around to witness such an event. Bert was up and headed back towards the bar.
The man turned to me and said, "Bert has been unrelenting in his praise of your qualifications as an investigator. So much so, that I worry that I may be unable to afford your services." He raised an eyebrow at this point as if to make emphasis. His brows were a thing of beauty. A filigree of black and gray hairs arranged in a chaotic fashion. They fit him well along with his natty dressing. He was wearing a heavy tweed suit with waistcoat. Over-dressed for July, but, hey, it was a typical Dutch July, that is, chilly and with much precipitation. He had a large and floppy bow tie which gave him a professorial air. He was saying, "But before we get to that perhaps you can give me some idea from where you acquired you expertise?" He spoke English with an Englishman's accent. Cord had noticed, when he had first visited Amsterdam, that many older people, at that time, spoke English with an English accent. The younger people all spoke English with an American accent. Cord had surmised that the young had been heavily influenced by the heavy ratio of Hollywood movies and American TV series, on the television, as to what was emanating from the UK. "Do you study such a thing at a university?"
"Well, yes, there are universities that offer courses in criminology. But in my case I had gone to university with the intention of studying law. In the States you first do four years of university before doing three years of law school. I did make it into law school but when my wife, at the time, became pregnant with the second child, it was necessary to go to work. I applied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. I was accepted and trained. I was at the Bureau for nearly ten years."
"But why did you leave such a prestigious agency. We, in the Netherlands, are very familiar with the great work done by your FBI. There is this series on television that reports on their important cases over the years...Oh, thank you Bert...as I was saying, we Dutch have great respect for the American FBI."
"Ah, yes, the FBI of TV-land and the movies. But in reality there is little that the Washington D.C. version has to do with the Hollywood one. I joined because I was young and idealistic and not for the glamor which was good because there was no glamor. I mean, agents, at that time, had to have a law or accountant's background. Not a background that breeds excitement or exciting people. But as to why I left, well, you could say that I stepped on toes sometimes to get the job done. The last time that happened it got the attention of my supervisor's supervisor's supervisor. The last supervisor in that series was the director himself, at the time, J. Edgar Hoover. I was to be reassigned to Rapid City, South Dakota. I had seen Mount Rushmore and didn't feel any overwhelming compulsion to make a study of it. So I resigned. My wife didn't consider that to be a good career move so she decided to resign from the marriage."
"But what brought you to our fair country?"
"I had been here on a case following a money trail. A man who had embezzled several million dollars had tried to launder it through the Dutch banking system which has admirable attributes for doing such things, not to mention, tax benefits for foreigners. He was trying to take advantage of both like any good accountant. I was here about five or six weeks. The country and its people left a favorable impression on me. With my marriage over, I thought it might be advisable to avoid American ladies for a while. They tend to be the marrying type. I didn't consider it a good financial move to enter into a legal union again or, at least, too soon."
"Is that it that attracts you so much to the Netherlands? The ladies?"
"That's a big part of it, no doubt. But it is the weather I really like!"
Jan Jansen nearly recoiled in shock. "I beg your pardon! Did I hear you correctly? You like Dutch weather." Even his manner of speaking had changed from one showing respect to the one now that expressed skepticism as to my intelligence. Even Bert turned to look at me like I was a crazy man.
"Meneer Jansen, have you ever been in Chicago?"
"Regrettably not. I feel amiss that I have never visited the city's Art Institute. It and the Hermitage, in Leningrad, have the world's largest collection of French 19th century Impressionists."
"Yeah, I love Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte." In fact, I love the city. There are only four things that I hate: January, February, July and August. It is either too goddamn cold or too goddamn hot. Holland has four seasons. And there are no real extremes. Sure, from time to time, we have snow and the temperature drops to below freezing. But that last a week or two at the most. I was assigned to an Agency office in Detroit. There was one winter when there were 56 consecutive days when the thermometer never reached zero on any given day. And there was snow on the ground; it stayed and stayed until spring. There are no weather extremes here. I cannot tolerated heat and what is refreshing here is that the whole country is naturally air-conditioned."
The old man's expression had now changed from a disbelieving one to one that appeared to express enlightment. "Meneer Cord, this is most refreshing. We Dutch are always complaining about the weather and speak of it only in with the most disparaging terminology. It is probably the only thing we can agree on. There is a saying that when a Dutch person meets another Dutch person and they agree on a topic they form a key club...a private club, I think you Americans say. When the two meet a third Dutchman that is in agreement with them, they form a new political party." He laughed at his own joke. "There is much truth in the little story and it has always been reassuring that in mass unison we can all hate the weather together you might say. I find you most perceptive. I do believe you are the right person to solve my problem." He turned to Hog and said, "Thank you, Bert. You did not exaggerate Meneer Cord's intellect...But, now, what will it cost me?"
He peered at me like a sad eyed basset hound. I reached into my breast jacket pocket and extracted a folded sheet of paper. I unfolded it and handed it to him. He opened his suit jacket and with his thumb and finger daintily removed a monocle. He raised an eyebrow and inserted the lower part of the glass into the folds under his eye and clamped down from the top with his bushy brows. I told him that everything was in categories. He asked what classification would a stolen painting fall under. I answered, "Property Retrieval."
"You have listed an hourly price and a day price. I do not understand?"
"There will be days that I only put an hour or two into the case and other days when it requires eight, ten or more hours. This keeps the overall bill in balance."
"How long do you estimate it will take?"
"I have no idea. You have told me nothing concerning the object or anything else that is pertinent. I mean, it could take a hour, a day, week or never. That's always a possibility."
"I am not a rich man, Meneer Cord. Unfortunately, I seem to have been naïve as to what such a simple little thing could cost."
"Well, as you are aware, the Amsterdam police work for you at no additional cost to the taxes you pay. You should be talking to them."
"Aah, but I have. They have been no help. They insist that they cannot assist me."
"Why? Someone broke into your home, I assume, and stole a painting. That's still a crime even in this tolerant country."
"But, alas, Meneer Cord, they found no evidence of a break-in; nor do they think that a painting I paid a little over 800 guilders for is worth any effort on their part. Such naives."
"You want me to look for a painting that you paid only 800 guilders for? My best advice to you Meneer Jansen is to accept your loss. Buy another painting. You can probably get one for what you would need to pay me."
"Meneer Cord, it is more complicated than that. Please, why don't we do this. I'll study this data you have presented me with and consult my financial status. Give me a telephone number I can call. I shall either decide to heed your advice or to engage you." I took out my calling card and handed it to him. He put it and the monocle into the same watch pocket of his waistcoat. We shook hands and he left.
Bert turned to me and said, "That went well, Cord."
"I suppose. But, really, this would all be such a waste of time and his money. Don't you think, Bert."
"As you know, we Dutch are very close with our money. If he decides against following your advice and feels there is a return value to commission you to find this painting then he has a very good reason."
"We'll see. We'll see! Hey, gotta go...see you later Hog..."
"What did you call me?" His eyebrows were arched and his eyes glared at me.
"What did I call you? Ah, dog. I called you dog. You know, for some reason, tonight, you reminded me of a basset hound. You know the dog I mean. Sad eyes."
"I see. Well, I can't say that I find it complimentary to be compared to a dog, but, a basset hound? that's a nice animal. I like them! Remind me to buy you a beer the next time we see each other."
Yeah, sure, I thought, the day that happens is the same January day we can sit in the sun soaking up sun rays in the scorching heat at Sanford beach.
I wasn't tired so I biked over the De Pels, an Amsterdam brown cafe. A few modern interior designed bars had opened in the city recently, but they were few and far in between. The brown cafe was so named because everything in it was brown. The walls, the ceiling, the tables and chairs. Of course, one reason for the nomenclature, was that everything was painted with brown paint. Then add to that fact that there was the built up of residue from tobacco smoke. The tars and nicotine had bleached every crevice and corner. So it was back to the age old question of the chicken and the egg and which came first. I suspected, knowing the Dutch, that the brown paint had come first so that no one would notice the smoke's tar and nicotine contribution as it layered and layered itself over the years. Dutch efficiency dictated, in a matter such as this, that there would be no need to repaint at any period. Hey, if it works, it works!
As I walked in I saw Vic, an Englishman, I knew, standing at the bar. I went over and said hello. "Hello to you Wessie. How good to see you." Vic had long straight hair which was freckled with black and gray strains. He looked like an aging hippy bedecked in a fading tied died shirt and belly bottom pants that clung to his hips and not his waist. The latter no longer really existed. His stomach flopped over his belt and shaked like an English Christmas pudding when he walked. "Can I buy you a drink, Vic?"
"Thought you would never ask! Pils and a jenever, my good man." He spoke like a cockney trying to sound like a public schooled English aristocrat; it didn't come out as sounding very original.
"Why not one or the other. Together you'll end up getting drunk!"
"Why, that's the point. The very point."
"No it's not! Alcohol is to be savored not abused."
"Listen, Wes, we abuse alcohol because we appreciate it!"
"Is the some sort of English metaphysics, Vic?"
"What's this artsy-fartsy meta-something?...But call it what you want! Facts are facts." I placed the order as he had requested and for some unphantomable reason---or was it an impulse---told the bartender the same for both of us.
When I first came to Holland, in the early 70s, I had been a Scotch Whiskey drinker. Johnnie Walker, Red or Black, and on the rocks. Brown cafes had at the time a very limited selection of spirits. And what they did stock was limited to two varieties of Jenever, "jonge" (young) and "oud" (old), as well as the Bols line which was a series of spirits with flavorings from cherry to chocolate, much like a liqueur; a "vieux" that was considered by the Dutch drinkers to be Dutch style Cognac, but, unfortunately, it had the sharpness of a cheap Italian or Spanish "grappa." Then there was acquavit, made from egg yolks and you "drank" it with a spoon. Kid you not. Some brown cafes did have Scotch and invariably it was Bells. A Scotch that tasted to me more like cough medicine that the manufacturer had left out the flavoring that made it palatable. It was harsh and went down not at all well. To make the situation even worse, when I asked for it on the rocks, "With ice, please," I got one ice cube. When I asked for more ice, I got another ice cube. I switched to jenever; it made it easy for everyone.
It wasn't bad either. It was often referred to as Dutch gin. Myself, one who loathes English gin---it taste like a cheap cologne---I felt it an insult to describe the Dutch variety with the English counterpart. The bartender put down the two glasses of beer with the required two centimeter foamy white head and two tulip glasses; so called because each vaguely resembled a tulip. He poured from a bottle with a speed pour attachment the clear liquid. When he was done, each glass appeared to have a slight bubble at the top. Most people bent down to take the first sip so as not to spill a milliliter of the liquid. "Not Beefeaters, but it'll do," muttered Vic.
He asked me if I was working on anything new. I told him about the meeting I had just come from. He said to keep him in mind should I require any of his many talents. Vic was someone who did and didn't have a job. His work involved dealing drugs---soft ones only he insisted and for export---but he was a person with a variety of abilities which were remarkably varied and I often found myself in need of assistance from him. He also spoke very good Dutch and I had used him for research on particular cases. In a good library, he was a bloodhound and he always got what I was looking for.
We packed it in at closing time. We both walked a straight line out the door...well, maybe too straight. I biked back to my flat and was in bed by half past two.