Authors: Pieter Aspe
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #International Mystery & Crime, #Private Investigators
Translated by Brian Doyle
For my daughters
Tessa and Mira
Let him who seeks continue seeking
RENKEL SIPPED AT HIS
cloudy, lukewarm cocktail. It tasted bitter. He pulled a face and tapped the glass with his signet ring.
“Waiter,” he grunted.
The bartender put down his rag and looked the Dutchman up and down with a sneer.
“Sorry, friend, but there's no way I'm gonna drink this piss.”
“Monsieur is not satisfied?”
Mario, thickset with Mediterranean features and traces of permanent stubble, glared in anticipation at the difficult customer.
“Non,” the Dutchman responded self-consciously. “Je veux â¦ eh â¦ give meâ¦.” His French had reached its limit. The bartender tossed the contents of the customer's glass into the sink with a gesture of disdain. Frenkel shrugged his shoulders in resignation.
So this is Belgium,
he thought, despondent.
Frenkel pointed to the bottles behind the bar. He felt like a 19th-century explorer forced to communicate with the natives by using sign language.
Mario's face lit up. He grabbed a clean glass with a victorious smile, mixed a gin and orange in the wink of an eye, and slid it across the bar.
“Jesus,” Frenkel sipped and groaned. “What kind of garbage is this?”
“Okay, I give up,” Frenkel sighed. He handed back the glass and tellingly shook his head. “You give me bon, I pay,” he added Tarzan-like.
Ah, ce n'est pas bon
â¦ you don't like!” Mario grimaced childishly.
Frenkel was at the end of his tether. A friend had recommended the Villa Italiana as the best bar in Bruges. Hot drinks, hotter girls, he had bragged.
“I mean a bon, a check, for my boss,” he said in desperation. Mario picked up the glass and held it to the light.
un bon whiskey,
” he said paternalistically.
“Yes, okay, whiskey,” Frenkel dropped his head and almost gasped. It had been a lousy day. In the absence of female company, booze was the only alternative.
Mario turned and pointed at the bottles on the gantry.
“Yes,” Frenkel cheered. “J&B if you've got it.”
The bartender ran his finger along the line of bottles, ostentatiously passing over the J&B and hovering at the Chivas.
“Whatever. Chivas then,” Frenkel growled.
“An excellent choice, monsieur,” said Mario, winking as if they were best buddies.
He polished a glass and held it up to the shot tender. His gorilla grin was beginning to get on Frenkel's nerves. The barman fished an ice cube from the bucket and held it motionlessly above the glass.
Frenkel nodded and Mario dropped the ice in the whiskey with a splash. He repeated the ritual and awaited Frenkel's response.
After four cubes, Frenkel gestured that it was enough. “Basta,” he said cautiously under his breath.
Mario smiled like a Sicilian shepherd who had just selected the tastiest sheep from the flock. He crouched and produced a bottle of cola from the cooler.
A huddle of new clients made a loud entry. A couple of dolled-up bimbos took to the dance floor while their formally dressed partners settled on the empty barstools.
“Shame for the bon whiskey,” said Mario as he poured the cola over the ice and Chivas.
Frenkel took a deep breath and tried to control himself. He hadn't ordered cola.
The hip-swaying tramps on the dance floor waved insistently in the direction of the bar. Mario turned up the volume. He knew his customers.
Frenkel nipped at his substantial whiskey-cola â¦ then the obstinate beat of the turbocharged house music slammed his intestines against his diaphragm. He could have finished his Chivas in one gulp and paid the check, but instead he made his sullen way to the adjoining lounge. At least it would be quieter. He really didn't have much of a choice. Heads: counting sheep in a postmodern hotel room. Tails: more booze.
“Villa Mafia” won the toss. Adriaan Frenkel collapsed into one of the leather armchairs, worn out.
“Those Hollanders fall for it every time,” said Mario to one of the other waiters, a pale and lanky imitation of Count Dracula.
“Needed a receipt for his work. It's always the same with that crowd,” Mario whined. You could have cut his Bruges accent with a knife.
The pallid waiter smiled wearily. “Make sure he doesn't hear you. Hollanders are our best friggin' customers.”
Mario shrugged his shoulders and tapped four glasses of beer.
“You're such a sourpuss, Jacques. Can't a person have a laugh now and then?”
He took a gulp at the gin and orange the “Hollander” had refused and scribbled 600 francs on Frenkel's check: 280 for the cocktail and 320 for the whiskey-cola.
Mr. Georges was a regular at Villa Italiana. When he walked in, a couple of waiters appeared from the shadows and helped him and his guest take off their coats.
“Is the lounge free, Jacques?” asked Mr. Georges, bossy but affable.
If Mario hadn't pissed around with the Hollander, Jacques could have answered in the affirmative.
“Just one customer, Mr. Georges, if I'm not mistaken. A tipsy tourist.”
Mr. Georges grinned like a wide-mouthed frog with Cushing's syndrome. It took a few seconds for the various rolls of fat to resettle.
Jacques didn't budge an inch. Mr. Georges's bouts of laughter were legendary, and no one was ever sure if they were a sign of good news or bad.
“Okay, Jacques. No problem.” His chubby hand vanished into his inside pocket and reappeared with a two-thousand-franc note.
“Make sure we're not disturbed, and bring us a bottle of bubbly, Ruinart 1983
si c'est possible
“Consider it done, Mr. Georges,” said a genuinely grateful Jacques. The pasty waiter had three children from his first marriage and needed a small fortune to pay for their upkeep.
Adriaan Frenkel saw the men arrive. A pair of elderly gentlemen wasn't exactly the kind of company he had been hoping for. He considered leaving, but the more-than-ample ration of Chivas had made him listless. When he looked up, the ceiling swirled like a carousel above his head.
He watched Jacques serve the champagne and ordered another whiskey-cola. If any girls showed up, he could always pretend he was married.
Georg,” he heard one of the men say as Jacques uncorked the champagne. The man who had just said “wunderbar, Georg” reminded him of a character played by Dirk Bogarde in some second-rate Visconti movie. The man deposited a black briefcase on the marble coffee table.
. We have something”âhe said it like
?” said the other in horrendous German.
“Everything is going according to plan. Another couple of months and we'll have control of the entire market.”
The German feigned a smile and raised his glass. “
They guzzled the champagne like thirsty sheep. Half an hour later, the portly gentleman ordered a second bottle.
Frenkel, by contrast, didn't touch his second whiskey. He had settled comfortably into his lounge chair, the ceiling was no longer spinning, and he was still enjoying the buzz of the first.
“So â¦ that other business has also been taken care of,” he heard the German say.
The two men chatted freely, the volume of their conversation increasing by the minute. Frenkel had no trouble listening in.
“Dietrich, you know me. Everything has been taken care of.”
But in MÃ¼nchen they're asking questions. Consent to the project is not unanimous.”
Dietrich. You have your doubts, that I understand. But wasn't this evening enough to convince you?”
“The board appreciates your efforts, Georg. I'll be sure to say so in my report, butâ¦.”
“Trust me, Dietrich. There's a council meeting next month and it's on the agenda. The new BÃ¼rgermeister is a minor stumbling block. But all he can do is slow things down a little.”
Dietrich Fiedle wasn't really impressed with Georges's response. The German had already guzzled four glasses of champagne, but the bubbles appeared to have had little effect as yet on his frosty tone.
“Don't forget that too many stumbling blocks could endanger the merger.”
“You can reassure them in MÃ¼nchen that I'm a man who keeps his promises,” Mr. Georges retorted assertively. “It'll all be in the bag by Easter. I don't understand what's panicking the Germans. We Flemish are men of our word. You should know that, surely.”
The German looked around the lounge like a startled hawk. His eyes flickered in the direction of Frenkel, who was listening carelessly to their every word.
“Admit it, Dietrich. It was absolutely unnecessary toâ”
Fiedle interrupted in mid-sentence. “That was a question of service, Georg. Consider it a foretaste of what's yet to come. Kindermann is soon to become the largest tour operator in Europe, and after the merger you'll be one of its senior managers. Don't ask questions, Georg, just enjoy your privileges.”
Mr. Georges indulged himself with more champagne. Frenkel looked on as the costly nectar sloshed down the man's gullet past a plump array of double chins. “But I still don't understand why this had to happen this evening,” he persisted. “We could have saved the entire discussion for Zeebrugge on Monday.”
Dietrich ran bony fingers through his slicked-back hair. The Belgian had no idea that he was a pawn in a game of which only a few were privy to the rules.
“Herr Leitner wants copies of the notarized deeds on his desk by tomorrow morning,” he said adamantly. “Monday is too late.”
The portly Belgian laughed. He wasn't about to get into a discussion on Leitner.
“In any case, Bruges is a handsome city, don't you think?”
Fiedle held his glass to the light as if he was looking for “impurities.” “Very handsome,” he admitted. “Shame most of the buildings are fake.”
Mr. Georges almost choked, and Frenkel blinked.
“Don't exaggerate, Dietrich. The place attracts millions of tourists every year from all over the world. They love the atmosphere.”
“They do indeed come for the atmosphere,” said Fiedle superciliously. “That's precisely why Kindermann is prepared to invest three hundred million marks in the project. The customer is always right, after all; and if we give the consumer what he wants, we make a profit.”
Frenkel was unaware of the scope of Fiedle's words. Mr. Georges filled the glasses. “What makes you say âfake,' by the way?” he asked. “Bruges is medieval to the core.”
The German raised his glass to his lips and drank like a bored swan. His angular adam's apple bounced up and down almost imperceptibly.
The way he said “Nein, Georg” made Adriaan Frenkel freeze.
“Only a handful of the monuments in Bruges are authentic,” Fiedle continued condescendingly. “The rest is pure camouflage.”
Mr. Georges straightened himself. The lines of rosacea on his cheeks glowed like smoldering filaments.
“That's bullshit,” he snapped.
Fiedle threw back his head. “The city hall and the churches are real and the bell-tower is unique, but the rest is either neo-gothic or so radically restored that it's hardly worth looking at.”
“Dietrich,” Mr. Georges protested, spilling fifty francs' worth of champagne in the process.
“You don't believe me,” said Fiedle arrogantly. The German took a gulp of champagne.
Frenkel followed his example with a sip of tepid whiskey-cola. He could have punched the Aryan bastard.
“Then I'll let you in on a major secret,” Fiedle swaggered.
“No need, Dietrich, no need. I believe you, honestlyâ¦.” the portly Belgian tried to placate his guest. “Shall I order coffee?”
“Have you lost your mind?” the German roared.
“It's all good, Dietrich,” said Mr. Georges. “Speak, I'm listening.”
“First, another bottle of sekt,” Fiedle snarled.
Adriaan Frenkel was captivated. It wasn't the first time he'd seen a respectable member of the
undergo an abrupt metamorphosis. One minute they were paragons of reason and propriety, and the next they were beyond recognition.
Jacques reacted quickly to Mr. Georges's raised finger and scuttled into the cellar like an aging whippet.
Dietrich Fiedle waited stubbornly until Jacques returned with the third bottle of Ruinart. When Jacques had refilled the glasses, the German continued in a subdued voice.
Adriaan leaned carefully in their direction.
“My father was familiar with all of Bruges's artistic treasures. He had been chargedâ¦.”
As the conversation progressed, Frenkel could sense the blood throbbing in his veins. This was impossible. The son of
bastard! And in Bruges of all places!
He remained seated until the men got up to go. The third bottle of expensive champagne stood almost untouched on the table. Adriaan tossed back the remainder of his whiskey-cola and mechanically made his way to the bar. He had sobered up fast.
“Can I pay with Visa?” he asked.
“Pas de problÃ¨me,” said Mario with a straight face.
The bartender kept up the pretense. If they pay with a credit card, you can forget the tip.
Adriaan Frenkel signed the check and scurried to the toilet. A receipt for his boss was the last thing on his mind.