The Phone Number

I count 3200 euros, a credit card and a phone number, the contents of a wallet I’ve just found. A nice surprise under the seat in O’Reillys, an Irish bar in The Hague. The name stamped into the card is James Wilding. Means nothing to me. I wonder if Wilding was in the bar earlier, deadly quiet in here now, so no one to ask.

For once, football isn’t on the TV, explains why the bar is empty. Suits me fine, a quiet drink before bed is all I want.

After a few gulps of Guinness, my conscience begins to debate whether to pocket the cash with a smile or do the right thing.

‘Was there someone here earlier?’ I ask the cheerless Dutch barman.

He shrugs his shoulders, not sure if he is non-committal or doesn’t care. I’ve been to this bar a few times, a regular spot on my trips to the city, but I haven’t seen this barman before. He wasn’t much more communicative when I ordered my pint earlier, muttering through his fuzzy beard, his drug filled eyes not interested in contact with anything but the sticky floor. I make one decision. I’m not leaving the wallet for him to top up his stash fund.

Returning to my drink, I enter the next phase of conscience management.

I decide ringing the Police might be an option for tomorrow, not tonight. The only thing for now is to call the number on the piece of paper and ask the person answering if they know him. The number is a Netherlands mobile, confirmed by the answer machine. I leave a message to say I was looking for a James Wilding.

Back out in the street, waving the cheerless barman goodbye, I think I’ve done all I can for the moment. It’s just a case of waiting on the return message, and if it doesn’t come, I have the last chance of salvation by taking it to the police or rotting in hell, a few grand richer.

I stroll back to the Hotel along Noordeinde, my favourite street in The Hague. Tiny bars and cafés mix with galleries and designer furniture stores capped off by the stark old Palace. It’s there I bump into a familiar face. He speaks to me in Dutch but I tell him to fuck off in English. It’s the same story every week; one he kindly explains in English if you appear dumb to his question. He says he’s lost his money and needs the train fare home. I didn’t fall for it the first time, so wasn’t going to again, especially given we are at least a mile from the station. Someone must bung him the cash because he sticks to the same story each time.

He makes me nervous, not sure if it’s his long black coat, or his manner, but it creeps me out. I walk into the next street, Molenstraat. Another narrow characterful lane, packed full of restaurants and quirky shops, but right now it feels oppressive. I check over my shoulder, sensing someone behind me. No one there. Why am I so nervous? Must be the wallet. A few paces more and my head is over my shoulder again, still nothing.

Turning forward, I jump out of the way of a cyclist. The rider curses me, ringing his bell into the distance.

The next street opens out into a small square. I feel relieved to be in sight of the hotel.

Before crossing the road, I wait whilst a tram passes and then notice a Mercedes taxi following. I wait, expecting it to pass but it stops in front of me. It takes a second to register the rear passenger door opening. A large Asian man steps out. The anticipated question for a location doesn’t come. Before I can react, he pulls me off my feet and drags me into the car across the worn leather seats

The taxi speeds away as the questions start.

‘Who the fuck are you?’ The large man demands in English, the Dutch accent strong.

‘Michael Harper, a sales director for Intercom.’ I decide this is not the time to be coy.

‘How do you know James Wilding?’

‘Don’t know-‘

‘You said you were looking for him, you must know him.’

‘I don’t honestly.’ This is crazy, who are these people?

‘Why did you call that number?’ he demands, whatever I’m saying is not getting through.

Do I mention the wallet? What do I tell him? Not sure if this going to get me in deeper or not, these guys don’t look like they are messing about. I go for honesty.

‘I found his wallet. Don’t know anything about him.’

He ignores my answer this time, like he isn’t the one I need to explain it to. I guess we’re going to see someone else. The driver continues to say nothing, which is a positive, the speed he’s driving at is terrifying on these busy streets.

The car screams out of the centre and races passed Hollands Spoor station, south into an area I don’t know, but could see wasn’t a great place for an English guy in a suit. My right hand clings to the door handle, I’m not sure where to look, the road ahead passes too quickly, my abductor too scary to face. . We pull off the road, bouncing over a massive speed bump that lifts me off the backseat. The car turns quickly again and we speed into a multi-storey car park. This doesn’t look good.

We pull into a corner on the third floor. Three cars are already waiting. I am pulled out to face a line of three dark skinned faces. The crow bar in one guy’s hand tells me this isn’t for fun. He walks over to me and slams it across my leg. I scream in pain, and fall to the floor. I glance up again expecting another blow but he steps back in line. Inspecting my leg, it feels in one piece but there are needles of pain shooting through my body.

From the floor I watch them discuss the situation in Dutch. The accent is so heavy, probably a Haagse dialect, not even the few Dutch words I know register. I try to breathe deeply, keeping the pain and panic under control as I wait for their verdict. How the hell did I end up here?

The group breaks and a spokesman steps forward.

‘Engels, where from?’

‘Manchester,’ I reply.

‘United or City?’

‘Neither, don’t like football.’

‘Hear that boys, a Manchester boy doesn’t like soccer.’

Forced laughter echoes round the concrete structure adding to the menace.

‘Who are you and why you also leave a message on my phone?’

‘I found the number in a wallet, in O’Reilly’s.’

‘James Wilding right?’

‘Yes, sorry I didn’t know who I was calling, just trying to be helpful.’

The truth might be my ticket out of this.

‘Aah already the good Samaritan, or something, right?’

I don’t reply, feeling very cold and nervous now, the shock settling in.

He steps closer.

‘Wallet?’

I reach out to hand it over. He steps forward with the crow bar man just behind him. Not again, please.

I hear a car screech on the lower floors, and then sirens.

The gang instantly dive for their cars, ignoring me. In seconds the floor is filled with armed police. I lie flat out in response to the warning shouts. I don’t know the words but I get the message.

The screaming pain in my leg competes with the noise of sirens and shouts for equal status. It’s a mass of people and arguments but I don’t care, just want to be safe.

An hour later, in an interview room, the questions start. Two Dutch Police officers take it in turns to work out what role I played in the story. It feels much as I’d feared, swapping one interrogation for another, and neither seems interested in my story.

Then I mention the name.

‘James Wilder.’

‘Say the name again.’

I do.

‘Do you know who he is?’

‘No idea, doesn’t mean anything to me.’

There’s a quick glance between them.

‘Tell me another time, how you found this wallet.’ I repeat the story, my energy levels receding with every word. They gave me painkillers earlier, I think they are beginning to shut my body down.

‘Who did you tell?’

‘I asked the barman if he’d seen him; those people you arrested before, but no one else.’

Another knowing glance between them, and then they leave the room.

I’m left to wonder what this was about. A windfall one moment, Good Samaritan the next, and then fucking abducted for my troubles. Finally I’m turned over by the Dutch Police who can’t decide whether I’m just a dickhead or the best con-merchant in the Netherlands. Surely the former is obvious.

It feels like hours. My eyes sag with the wait, so I’m taken by surprise when they return.

‘We’ve called you a taxi. You can go back to your hotel now.’

I look at them to check for a catch, but when nothing comes, not even their trademark glances, I’m out of the door.

The rain pours down in the lay-by outside the Police station. It doesn’t worry me. I’m numb to most things now, including my leg. I just want to get back to the hotel, get back to my boring job counting mobile phones. I’ve been coming to The Hague every week for months now, thinking it a home from home. Now it feels like a very foreign country.

A taxi pulls up and I get in, my mind stuck on the nights events. It drives off before I even have chance to state my destination. The driver speaks, his voice distinctly English.

‘Have you got that phone number?’

‘What number?’

‘Don’t fuck about. The number in the wallet you found.’

Who the hell are you?’

‘James Wilding of course, who do you think? I need that number.’

‘What’s going on, who are you?’

‘The phone number, then I’ll take you home.’

‘The police took your wallet, I don’t have it. No, wait, I have it in my mobile.’ I pick up my mobile, checking the recent call list. The last number called is my wife from earlier in the evening.

‘It’s gone, been wiped.’

‘Bastard,’ he shouts, simultaneously smashing his hand on the steering wheel.

‘Fuck off yourself, this isn’t my fault.’

‘I need that number.’

‘It was you who left your wallet in the pub. What’s going on?’

‘The less you know the better.’

‘Don’t patronise me. I’m the one who’s already taken a barrel of shit on your behalf.’

‘Don’t blame me if you got dragged back into this.’

‘I’m listening.’

‘I’m an investigator for the International Courts of Justice, looking into trafficking crimes. Someone in the local Police is leaking information.’

‘So why the subterfuge, do they know you suspect them?’

‘Don’t think so but I’ve dropped out of circulation for a few days, whilst I find out what’s going on. That phone number was a contact I needed.’

‘What the hell were you doing in O’Reilly’s, hardly keeping a low profile?’

‘I was waiting to see someone, they didn’t turn up, must have left my bloody wallet. Look I’m taking you home. Forget tonight ever happened.’

I couldn’t help but agree, but I rather suspect it won’t be that simple.

The car pulls up outside the hotel. I’m looking forward to never getting into a Dutch taxi again.

Wilder turns to me.

‘OK, like I said, forget this- ,‘

Wilder’s head explodes in front of me, eyes instantly dead. I move like I’ve never moved before, diving below the seats. More shots follow. The car’s windows splatter in unison with the rap of gunshots.

As suddenly as they began, the shots stop. The car door is opened, a gun barrel appears whilst I’m dragged out by my jacket into the rain-puddled street. Scouting around in panic, I’m relieved to see it’s blue uniforms, rather than the Asian characters from earlier. Three of the uniforms are pointing rifles down at a body on the floor, a gun being kicked away rapidly. I catch a glimpse of the face as I’m dragged into the hotel entrance. It’s enough to see the body on the floor is the not-so-dopey barman from O’Reilly’s.

I’m dumped into a chair and told to wait. I want to ask a question, but not sure I know where to start. What the hell did the barman have to do it with it?

Whatever happened tonight, I just pray it’s over.

© S.G.Norris