Having been raised in New England, educated in convent school, hired as a church organist at age thirteen, and born into a family that boasted five priests, I suspect the last place you’d expect to find me on a Saturday night is in Amsterdam’s red-light district, but two weeks ago, that’s exactly where I was.
I write the Passport to Peril Mystery series, featuring travel escort Emily Andrew and her band of quirky Iowa seniors, so I travel the globe looking for exciting places to kill imaginary characters. To date, I’ve committed murder in Switzerland, Ireland, Italy, Hawaii, Australia, and Scandinavia. With NORWAY TO HIDE due to be released at the end of October, it was time for me to select a new killing ground, which is how I happened to be eating dinner in an upscale Dutch restaurant, opposite two fellow tour members who suggested it might be fun to explore the red-light district after the bus dropped us off at our hotel.
The red-light District? That den of inquity where brothels had thrived for a century? Where people could indulge in hanky-panky while guzzling ardent spirits and smoking something even more potent than Marlboros? Me? Go there? A bit outside my comfort zone, thank you. My idea of a rousing Saturday night is five o’clock Mass and a burger at Culvers.
“Oh, let’s,” said a third tour member. “I’m game,” said another. Even my husband expressed interest. Uh-oh. If I didn’t agree to tag along, I’d not only look like a wuss, I’d be a poor excuse for a mystery writer whose credentials included killing people on three continents. I reminded myself that I’d been thinking of letting a couple of my characters — “the two Dicks” — run amok in the red-light district in the next book, so I wouldn’t be gawking, I’d be… doing research. “I guess you can count me in, too,” I finally spoke up, hoping I wouldn’t live to regret it, .
After recruiting three more willing tour guests and receiving vague directions, we set off on our adventure like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales– the New York paralegal, the IRS guy, the UCLA professor, the retired research scientist, the government employee with actual security clearance, the agricultural engineer, two avid Boston Red Sox fans and the cozy mystery writer. We walked in a clump, trying to blend in, but I suspected we weren’t tall enough. (Factoid: If you’re Dutch, you’re really, really tall.) We passed a group of young men on a bridge and I heard the word “American” whispered. (Factoid: I wondered what gave it away? My husband’s baseball cap, the IRS guy’s Members Only jacket, or the name tags that were still pinned to our clothing?) We tried to determine which pathway we were on– the pedestrian sidewalk or the bicycle path. (Factoid: In Amsterdam there are walkways for people that run adjacent to bicycle lanes. The ground is littered with the bones of American who couldn’t figure out the difference.)
“It sure is quiet for a Saturday night,” I commented as we followed along a tranquil canal lit by strings of white lights. Amsterdam was spectacular at night with its patrician houses illuminated by sparkling chandeliers behind acres of glass. But the streets were oddly deserted. “Does anyone know where we’re going?” asked the paralegal. “This way,” said the BoSox fan, and after a left turn, we heard the commotion, which gradually increased to a rock concert roar.
So this was the red-light district. No wonder the rest of Amsterdam was deserted. Everyone was here! People milled shoulder-to-shoulder for as far as the eye could see along a narrow canal. Music blasted. Lights blared. Neon signs advertised products that I’d never find at my local Bed, Bath, and Beyond. A woman dressed in Victoria’s Secret lingerie stood statue-still in a storefront window, staring at her cell phone. I couldn’t figure out if she was sending a text message or having trouble with her system. “Stick together,” the BoSox fan admonished as we wove through the crowd, grabbing onto the hems of each others’ jackets.
The ladies of the evening occupied the same kind of cubicles made popular by Hollywood Squares. They were young, gorgeous, and looking for busy. Men gawked. Men whistled. My fictional Dicks would love it here. I was so glad I’d come! I could weave this into a story really well. Our BoSox fan started snapping pictures. “Should you do that?” I asked him. “I read someplace that you’re not supposed to take photos in the red-light distract.” “I must have missed that,” he responded as he continued to snap away.
We walked briskly, losing our grips on each other as we snaked our way through the ever-thickening crowd. On a bridge across the canal I saw a group of brave souls holding up signs that proclaimed, “JESUS SAVES.” I sidled looks at the ladies of the evening, my writer’s curiosity piqued. Was there one woman who attracted more business than all the others? Did that make the others jealous? Did they ever get together to do lunch or shop? Was this their full time profession, or like in “Pretty Woman,” were they only saving money to attend college? How much did they charge for their services? Did they have boyfriends?
The lights and music came to an abrupt end at a bridge and the members of our little troupe straggled onto it one by one. All except our BoSox fan. “Has anyone seen Dan?” asked his wife. We’d all seen him, but not within the last few minutes. So we waited. And waited. And waited.
No Dan. My husband whistled into the crowd. Someone whistled back, which did nothing but prove that two people in the crowd could whistle really loudly. We waited some more. “We should probably go back to the hotel,” said his wife after a while. “He’ll find his way back.”
Go back? But what if something had happened to him? What if he didn’t know his way back? What if he’d been arrested for taking pictures? What if he was floating in the canal? This was terrible! (Factoid: On the other hand, it was really great because it was inspiring some great ideas for my next book.) “He’s a big boy,” his wife assured us calmly. “He’ll be fine.” I was so admiring of her. If I’d been in her shoes, I’d be frantic. I was really regretting coming here. So we reluctantly shuffled back through the crowd on the opposite side of the canal, constantly looking over our shoulders for Dan. No one wanted to face our tour guide in the morning to tell him that it was only day two of our tour, and we’d already managed to lose a guest.
The eight of us trooped into our hotel with the weight of the world on our shoulders. “What do you want us to do?” we asked his wife. “Should we stay with you, contact our tour guide, contact the authorities?” “I’ll give him a couple of hours,” she assured us, “and if he’s not back by then…” At which point Dan came bouncing into the lobby, bursting with enthusiasm. “I got some great pictures. You wanna see?”
“Where WERE you?” we asked as we crowded around him. “I was right there,” he said as he flashed us a picture of a sultry blond. “With the JESUS SAVES people.”
Jesus saves. Thank God. (Factoid: Yup. The Dicks were going to love the red-light district.)
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