The Drifter


“Not the Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn..."


Despite the fact that the Dutch call early September autumn, it is still summer. The garden of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is this late summer day on September 4, 1997 almost empty.

   On a bench near the medieval gate sits an old English Cambridge professor together with a female colleague who appears to be of the same age. He is peeling an egg and she an orange. From a large thermos can  they pour tea in plastic cups. From Stadhouderskade they hear the cello music of a retired music teacher from the Amsterdam Conservatory, who on this Saturday afternoon wants to earn a little extra to cover her expenses. Her pension is not enough to survive, she complained to passersby in this beautiful city of tulips where living is becoming more expensive from day to day.

   "She plays well," comments the woman professor.

   The old man put his hand behind his ear. "What?"

   "BEAUTIFUL MUSIC!" his colleague shouts.

   The old professor brushes the comment aside, pulls a grumpy face and offers her a peeled egg. "Here!"

   "Thank you very much! And you!"

   The old man shows her another egg. "I have one too."

   Lured by the smell of food, a bunch of wild ducks leaves a small fountain and waggles towards to the old couple. The female professor makes bread crumbs to feed the ducks.

   "Don’t," shouts the professor. "How often must I tell you that bread is bad for the birds!"

   "Because of the salt and yeast in the bread," adds the old lady.

   "That's right."

   "But you know, dear," smiles the lady, "what is even worse for the birds."


  The man shrugs his shoulders. He takes a salt shaker from his pocket and puts some salt on his egg. "Want some?"

   "No! Thank you very much! My kidneys, you know. My doctor has forbidden me to eat salt."

   "Ah! These young unsalted intellectuals. What does it matter at our age? Salt it, woman!"

   The lady accepts the salt shaker and salts the egg. "Our young man is not here yet!"

   The man pulls a silver timepiece from a pocket of his vest and opens the lid. "We still have five minutes."


A rather fat, fifty year old vagabond parks his bicycle with a trailer containing twenty loaves of bread, a dozen empty beer bottles and a pile of old newspapers next to the bench of the Cambridge professors. "May I sit next to you!"

   "No," the old man shouts.

   The Drifter takes a loaf of bread and hands it to the female professor. "Maybe I can pay for my seat."

   The female professor accepts the bread. The professor takes it away from her, hands it back to the Drifter and points to an empty bench. "Young man. Please, go and sit over there."

   The Drifter breaks the bread into large chunks and throws them to the ducks. Then he says, "There on that bench is not the Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn."

   "That doesn’t interest us! Please, go away," the old fellow shouts.

   Pulling the sleeve of her colleague, the old lady whispers, "That's him!"

   The professor throws a disgruntled look at the Drifter. "What did you say?"

   The fellow sits down beside them. "Well, I said, there on the bench is not the Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn."

   The old man looks in disbelief at him. The password is fine, but how is it possible that they sent this terribly dirty, arrogant wizard to them?

   "But why did you mask yourself like this?"

   The Drifter smiles. "You probably expected a clean-shaven and smartly dressed macho. Who says I am masked? This is my current status quo. But that is naturally none of your business. Okay! Tell me, what do you want to know, I don’t have much time. God knows how many birds I still have to feed today."

   "Bread is not good for birds," says the professor angrily.

   "The bread has too much salt and yeast in it," adds his female colleague.

   The Drifter points to the bread in the trailer. "This is holy bread without salt and yeast," he quips. "It rises by itself."

   "Oh!" the Cambridge scientists remark, somewhat surprised.

   The Drifter gets up, goes to his trailer and takes two round loaves and a large piece of roast beef. He puts everything in a plastic bag, walks back to the bench, sits down again and offers the bag to the woman. "Here is something for on the way."

   "Thank you!"

   "Where did you get that!" inquires the old man.

   "From the most expensive shop in Amsterdam on PC Hooftstraat," the Drifter says truthfully.

   "I don’t understand!"

   "This is for my hungry birds and the homeless in Amsterdam. The boss of that shop, his wife and little daughter are atheists, but since they got to know me they’ve started to believe in God a little."


The professor takes a piece of paper from his worn-out briefcase and hands it to the Drifter. "Have a look at this."

   The Drifter looks at the scribbles and waves his hands. "Sorry, but I can’t read those scribbles in whatever language."

  "Handwritten letters!"

   The Cambridge researchers stare at each other. "How is it possible..." the professor says.

   "...that they’ve chosen an illiterate person to help you," adds the Drifter.

   "Yes," the couple says in unison.

   "That you’re going to ask those, who sent you to me. But let’s not waste any more time, please read it to me."

   The professor adjusts his glasses and clears his throat. "Hmm! Hmm!"

   "Is that what it says?" the Drifter jokes.

   The professor looks up surprised. "Hmm! What do you mean."

   "That! Hmm! Hmm!"

   The professor threatens with his forefinger. "Young man! Be polite!"

   The Drifter continues to crack jokes. "What young man? I'm fifty!"

   The professor seizes the opportunity to tease the Drifter. "But mentally you seem five to me."

   The Drifter laughs. "Well judged. Mentally five but physically fifty. That means, my dear friend, that according to Biblical standards I have the right to speak. Come on please, read it."

   The old man adjusts his glasses again, coughs and reads, "Help! They've kidnapped me! Lady Di."

   “Is that all?”

   The professor folds the paper. “That's all!”

   "What is your opinion?" asks the female professor.

   "Are these scribbles original?"

   "Of course not," shouts the old man.

   "It is a photocopy. The original is in a safe," says the lady professor.
   "The original was written with the blood of Diana," the Drifter says, "and then put in a champagne bottle and tossed from a yacht cabin into the sea."

   The professors stare at each other, it is dead silent. After some time the professor asks with a stern voice, "How do you know that?"

   The Drifter spreads his hands and grimaces. "What, for God's sake!?"

   "That! That this letter is written with blood, put in a champagne bottle and tossed into the sea."

   "I’m joking, man."

   "That's impossible!" says the lady professor. "You mentioned three details that could only be known to the princess or those who want to sell us a monkey’s sandwich."

   The Drifter laughs. "Believe me or not, I was kidding. I don’t care what you think."

   With a threatening voice the old man says, "We will report all this..."

   "... to all your MI's from zero and to God knows whatever number," the Drifter adds.

   "So it is," says the lady professor.

   "Go ahead. Report everything. Are we done now?"

   Again the Cambridge lady and gentleman exchange glances.      "What is your opinion?" the old man asks.

   The Drifter ponders for a moment. "When was the bottle found?"

   "Two days ago," replies the old man.


   "Near Sardinia. An amorous couple was sailing in a small boat and accidentally saw someone pitching a bottle through the window of a luxury yacht."

   "And then they immediately ..."

  "Who are they?"

   "State secret!"

   "Okay! You're sure the message is written with blood?"

   The two Cambridge scientists nod. "One hundred percent," says the old man.

   "Diana's blood!?"

   The researchers look at each other. "We don’t know," admits the old lady.

   "Check it!"

   The scientists laugh. "That's not so easy," admits the professor.

   "Smiley People can do everything," says the Drifter mockingly.

   The old lady smiles. "Only in English spy novels. Our hands are tied here."

   "The message was found," continues the Drifter, "in a Don Perignon bottle."

   "How do you know that?" sputters the professor.

   "Your legendary 007 always drank that poison."

   "Don’t be silly!"

   The old lady is making notes in a little notebook. "This is the fourth thing…," she says.

   "…that is only known to the one who wrote the letter, or to our dear ‘late’ princess, may God save her soul," adds the Drifter.

   The professor waves his forefinger. "That's right."

   "What do you drink?" asks the female professor.

   "Plain water from the tap."

   "Tell that to someone else," the old man sneers. He points to the trailer. "Where do all these empty beer bottles in your 'Rolls' come from?"

   "Ha ha ha! The bottles I collect here and there for the deposit."

   The professor clears his throat. "Hmm! Hmm! Okay. Please tell us how you knew that the message was in a Don Perignon bottle."

   "Well," the Drifter smiles. "Did they not tell you that I am clairvoyant?"

   "And that we will ..." says the lady professor.

   "... also report."

   "That's right."

   The Drifter points to a half-open window on the first floor of the Rijksmuseum, where the museum library is located. "That is not necessary. Those who sent you are following our conversation."

   The two Cambridge scientists turn their gaze in that direction. A bald head disappears from the opening.

   "We will still report all that," says the professor.

   "Please don’t! Poor me. They will give me a bad grade for my conduct again and then I will really have to become a drifter."

   The professors look at each other and smile.  

   Now turning serious, the Drifter says, "You can solve the mystery immediately by checking if the letter was written with Diana's blood."

   The professor shrugs his shoulders. "That's impossible!"

   The Drifter raises both hands. “Then I can’t help you anymore."

   "Please tell us, how you knew that the car crash would take place," says the female professor.

   The Drifter gets up. "Your top agents sniff too much during their visits to Amsterdam and when they fall asleep babble rather than snore."

   The old man nods. "Obviously! But that doesn’t mean that everything they say is true."

   "Where there's smoke there is fire."

   The female professor spreads her hands. "It cannot be true!"

   The Drifter gets on his bike. "What?"

   "That Diana is alive!"

   "Who is in the morgue then?" the old man asks.

   "That is something you can verify."

   The old man brushes the comment away. "That is not necessary. It really is Diana! We’re only interested in who staged the car crash."

   The cyclist with trailer gets ready to leave. "Then, farewell!"

   The couple stands up and shouts, "Please! Tell us a little more."

   "All in good time. All in good time. Hurry up and find out who is in that coffin. You still have two days left."

   The Drifter leaves the garden of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum.