Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Broom in the Night or The France and Belgium Caper


Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

After dashing from platform to platform following the much-anticipated clack-clack-clack of the Gare du Nord's electronic timetable, George and I found ourselves sitting in a first-class compartment facing the overnight trip to Holland with a couple named Fred and Lucy.

Fred and Lucy were from Australia. He was a hearty-looking retired fireman. She - waspish and somewhat sinister. He talked incessantly. She said nothing. They had just arrived on the continent from the Firefighter's Olympics in California. Why they were on the train headed from Paris to Amsterdam, I don't remember.

Just before the train departed we were joined by a plain, squat, 19-year old girl named France. Fred commented on the appropriateness of her name. We agreed.

Her father was there to settle her in. France shyly told us how she was starting a new job in Brussels and was moving into her first apartment. We cooed our congratulations and wished her all the best. For a flat-warming present, her dad had given her a new broom, which she placed on the rack above her seat. An odd and clumsy present to travel with, I thought. But as France had a new place to clean, suitable nonetheless.

After a few pleasantries and some peppermints that Fred supplied, George and I extended our seat bottoms, tucked our money pouches around our necks and slept with our feet around each other. Fred and Lucy did the same. France slept upright with her chin lolling on her chest.

Usually a light sleeper, my night's rest was punctuated only by the sound of France's departure as she slid out into the dark corridor and the dawn of her new Belgian life and by the occasional volley of farts coming from Fred's direction.

As the train moved slowly and steadily through the dismal lowlands, we woke to find the back half of the train was gone. So were 900 of Lucy's American dollars. After winning it in Vegas she had wrapped the cash in tissue (why?...)and placed it in her camera bag; the camera bag that was found lying violated in the empty compartment behind us.

After a futile search for Lucy's cash and much satisfied patting of our own secure money pouches, I turned my mind to solving the mystery. The crime baffled me. A dozen potboiler scenarios ran through my head. Sherlock Holmes was famous for asserting, "When we have eliminated everything else, whatever remains, no matter how incredible, must be the truth" I hadn't taken it. Neither had George. Lucy and Fred wouldn't steal from each other. Or would they....? Had someone else entered the compartment?

Lucy looked over at me and said peevishly "We'll never see that money again, WILL WE?"

"It doesn't look that way, does it?" I replied. And with that it occurred to me that Lucy thought we had stolen it. Now nervous, I tacitly feared that Fred and Lucy were trying to frame us for the job and wanted us to either 'fess up or ante up.

Although we had agreed to help Fred and Lucy place a report with the Dutch police upon arrival, I felt virtually dragged by the ear like a naughty child throughout the station's concourse.

The four of us hurried through Centraal Station as best we could with our unsuitable suitcases. George was the only sensible packer among us. Fred's solid-sided Samsonite couldn’t be raised more that an inch off the floor. In his rush,he dropped his murderously heavy case down the full length of the escalator. If it had popped open and a half a dozen bowling balls and nine hundred dollars had popped out I wouldn't have been surprised.

At the "politie bureau" the cops asked us why we were there as well. They gave us the once-over and much to Fred's chagrin they dismissed us. Upon our departure, Fred asked for our phone number and address. Swiftly, George offered his work address. Back in Sydney, Fred and Lucy think we live at the corner of Queen and Bay.

A few minutes later while breathing somewhat easier in the queue at the tourist office, an ironic and frequent announcement warned us to "keep our belongings near as pickpockets abound".

Back home it took me a while to solve the case; embarrassing for an avid Sherlock Holmes buff. Apple-cheeked France, young and full of promise was a crook, a phoney. A scheming, pre-meditative thief. When we were lulled by the rhythm of the rails, she had taken the tool of her trade, her broom, and used it to lever Lucy's camera bag down.

Quietly and quickly she identified the bag with the cash. Confident that none of us would wake, France had ransacked Lucy's camera bag, and disappeared along with the money, her broom and the back half of the train. She made a clean sweep.

Cherchez la femme with the broom.

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