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"I've had enough, Sarge. There's just no pleasing them. They hate me, and that's it."
"What do you expect, André?" said Versavel indifferently. "Life is a like rosebush. The stem with thorns comes first, then the flower."
André Petitjean was too young and probably a bit too naïve to understand the full implications of Versavel's words, and Versavel didn't really care. He was tired and wanted to go to bed.
"But she loves me a lot. A whole lot," the young police officer persisted, not cluing into Versavel's diffidence.
Sergeant Versavel smoothed his moustache, a gesture he repeated several times a day.
"Her father, there's an asshole if ever there was one. He won't even look at me."
"So her mother isn't so bad then," said Versavel.
"If only," Petitjean sighed. "The bitch won't let us out of her sight."
Versavel only kept the conversation going because time passed quicker that way.
"If I were you, I wouldn't let it get to me. Most parents feel threatened when some oddball turns up with his sights on their daughter."
"Thanks a million," said Petitjean frostily.
Versavel had no children and thanked his lucky stars for it. Kids these days were so thin-skinned. Silence filled the van for a few moments. Petitjean steered the Ford Transit through the desolate streets of Bruges, a look of grim determination on his face.
"You have to admit we're not kids anymore."
Versavel conceded with a dry nod.
"What's their problem? I work for the police! They know I've got qualifications. With a bit of luck I'll make detective in five years, and if I play my political cards right I could be commissioner before I turn thirty-five. He's a civil servant, don't forget. Twenty-eight years of loyal service. Think about it."
And I'm just a measly sergeant, Versavel wanted to say. I wouldn't have minded a shot at commissioner myself.
"And to add insult to injury, he's insisting that if I really want to marry his daughter, I have to buy a house first."
"And she does everything daddy tells her, good as gold," said Versavel, irked at the whiney tone the conversation was taking. He sneaked a peek at his watch. Thank God, only three thousand, nine hundred seconds to go and their shift was up. Most weekend nightshifts were fairly busy, which pushed the clock forward. But tonight of all nights, with rampant Romeo on his case, everything outside was eerily quiet.
"I've got a name for them, you know."
Versavel shook his head and stroked his moustache.
"A bunch of backward Catholic bastards," Petitjean cursed short-temperedly. "The misery started with the inshicklical. They should never have pitch-forked that Pole into the Pope's job."
"The what?" Versavel sat up straight.
"You know, the inshicklical," Petitjean reiterated, surprised that Versavel didn't understand him. "Come on, the letter that says we all have to recognize authority like good little boys and girls. He believes in all that stuff, one hundred percent. He works for the health service, Church-run, goes with the territory."
"Ah, that's what you mean."
"What else did you think?" Petitjean snorted.
"I see what you're getting at," Versavel yawned. "The Catholic Church has been responsible for more than a few headaches over the years."
"But I've made up my mind. This afternoon I'm asking her to marry me. What do you think of that?"
Find another bimbo, is what he had wanted to say, but instead he answered: "You might just manage to impress them. The petit bourgeoisie isn't insensitive to the occasional bit of bluff. Focus on appearances, André, and the rest will take care of itself."
He should have held his tongue.
"What do you mean by that?" Petitjean lashed out nervously as the pent-up tension of the preceding hours erupted. "Don't make fun of me, Sarge." His bulging eyes were spitting fire. Petitjean was clearly rattled and in his confusion almost lost control of the vehicle. Luckily they were doing a lap of the main square at the time.
"Steady on, steady on," Versavel barked, shaken at having missed the edge of the sidewalk by a mere ten centimeters. "I never said I was an expert, did I? I know nothing about women and even less about future in-laws," he hissed.
"So what did you mean with that 'impress them' stuff? What was that all about? This is a serious downer, man. Don't you get it?" said Petitjean accusingly.
It was now four minutes past six. His shift wasn't exactly flying by. Versavel had to think of something to kill the remaining time.
"What if you bought her a really expensive engagement ring?" he blurted.
It was a stupid suggestion, but Petitjean perked up like a drowning man catching sight of a boat on the horizon.
"Do you think an expensive ring might make a difference?" he asked, desperately enthusiastic. Versavel had no other option than to play along now.
"Absolutely," he said in a paternal tone. "In-laws need to be warmed up. Buy the ring your mother-in-law always dreamed of and present it to her daughter on a tray."
Petitjean had fortunately paid no attention to Versavel's claims of ignorance about women and in-laws moments earlier.
"Do you mean it?"
"You know I'd never mess with you, André."
Petitjean was satisfied with Versavel's answer and thankfully refocused his attention on steering the van.
They drove down Geldmunt Street toward Zand Square. Night patrols always follow a fixed route and a strict schedule. They were running ten minutes early. A drunk puking under the Muntpoort was in luck: they left him alone.
Petitjean was now clearly in the best of moods and Versavel heaved a sigh of relief.
"You're amazing, Sarge. Honestly, you always know what to do."
Versavel stretched his legs and imagined himself crawling naked under his duvet. Heaven!
"Later I'm going to buy the most expensive ring there is," Petitjean purred good-humouredly.
"You mean tomorrow. Today's Sunday."
"Okay, tomorrow then." He had apparently forgotten that he planned to ask his girlfriend to marry him that afternoon.
Zand Square, where the old neo-Gothic train station had once towered, was vast and empty. An early taxi cautiously overtook them. A train rumbled in the distance. Petitjean's bulging eyes twinkled in the early misty sunlight. His red hair seemed ablaze, and his angular face gleamed like polished marble.
"The question is," he volunteered, deadly serious all of a sudden, "where tomorrow do I buy a magnificent, expensive engagement ring? What kind of ring is going to impress those bitches? It's too late for mistakes, Sarge."
A merciless ray of sun forced Versavel to narrow his eyes. What a naïve bunch, the youth of today, he thought to himself. Naïve and thin-skinned.
"Where do I buy the right ring?" Petitjean muttered in a sort of self-induced trance.
Versavel let him dream out loud. He was more interested in the restoration work being done on the tower of Saint Salvador's. It was close to completion. Versavel loved Bruges, its atmosphere, its perfectly maintained monuments. There was no end to the pleasure it gave him, especially at moments like this, at the crack of dawn, when he felt he had the city all to himself.
"You have to help me, Sarge," Petitjean insisted. "You know Bruges like the back of your hand. Where do I buy the most exclusive engagement ring available?"
He had to repeat himself, twice. Versavel realized it made no sense to try to explain to the young Petitjean that his advice had been nothing more than an improvised response to an irritating question. He planned to ask the commissioner, in the course of the week, not to send him out on patrol with Petitjean anymore.
"We'll be passing Degroof's shortly," he said nonchalantly. "That's where all the wealthy Bruges folks buy their stuff."
"Honestly?" Petitjean seemed possessed by the devil. Pearls of genuine perspiration glistened on his forehead. "How much longer, Sarge?" he whined like a toddler waiting for an ice cream.
They passed Simon Stevin Square. A young couple was saying their passionate farewells under the awning of a bank. Versavel figured the girl couldn't have been much more than seventeen. The world we live in, he sighed.
"Sarge?" Petitjean bleated impatiently.
"We're almost there. Take it easy."
Petitjean slowed down just to be on the safe side.
The busiest street in Bruges was as dead as a secluded suburb, and without the customary halogen spotlights the merchandise in the shop windows had lost its edge.
"Over there," said Versavel, "next to the shoe shop." He pointed at the gilded sign dangling above the door, with the company monogram in elegant gothic letters. Most jewelers stored their collection in a safe at night and some even took their more expensive items home. But this wasn't the appropriate moment to bother his young colleague with such details.
"No harm in sneaking a quick look, eh, Sarge?" asked Petitjean, raring to go.
"Far from it. Take your time."
Petitjean parked the Transit carelessly in front of the jeweler shop and instantly jumped out. Versavel took the opportunity to close his eyes. People used to doing nightshifts know the procedure: a quick refreshing snooze, no more than a couple of minutes. Versavel even had the odd dream, over in a flash, less than twenty seconds. He woke abruptly when Petitjean slammed the driver's door. The young policeman shook Versavel violently by the shoulder.
"Sarge, Sarge," he croaked.
Versavel growled. In his dream he was about to chat up a shapely Spaniard who had been giving him the eye.
"There's nothing in the window, Sarge. The shop's empty," Petitjean stammered.
Versavel kept his cool, only just but still.... Of course the shop was empty. He glanced at his watch, important for his report, yawned and smoothed his moustache. It was ten past six.
"And there's glass all over the place," Petitjean added nervously when he realized Versavel was in no hurry to make a move.
Versavel took a deep breath.
"Jesus Christ," he groaned. "Why didn't I keep my big mouth shut?"
Petitjean heard what Versavel said but didn't quite understand what he meant. "What are we going to do now, Sarge?"
Versavel fished a flashlight from under his seat and got out of the van. He shivered. Dawn was always chilly, even in the summer. Petitjean scuttled like a lame rabbit to the other side of the street, formed his hands into a cylinder against the safety glass window and peered excitedly inside. Versavel pointed the powerful beam of his flashlight into the shop's interior. It took him barely five seconds to reach the appropriate conclusion. The window display was indeed empty and there was a pile of broken glass carelessly swept into a corner. But what concerned him most were two pairs of white cotton gloves beneath one of the tables.
"I think our luck just ran out, friend," he said sarcastically.
Petitjean stared at him vacantly. A surge of adrenaline suddenly made him shudder. "You don't mean ..."
"Afraid so. Why now, of all times?" Versavel snapped. "You and your lame-ass problem."
Petitjean couldn't believe his ears. His sympathy for Versavel melted like an ice cube in a glass of tepid Coke. His colleagues had warned him: never trust a sergeant; when the shit hits the fan he'll drop you like a ton of bricks. Versavel had been making fun of him all night long. He actually didn't give a shit about his situation, which of course Petitjean found shocking.
"Don't move," Versavel barked. The prospect of bed and sleep vanished as he spoke.
"Whatever you say, Sarge." Petitjean stationed himself in front of the shop window and stared angrily into space.
Versavel hurried resignedly back to the Transit and radioed the duty officer. It took almost thirty seconds before the man responded. Bart De Keyzer had spent the last four hours snoozing on a folding bed and sounded like a crow with a head cold.
"ONA 3421 here, talk to me."
"Versavel here." He nervously drummed the Radetzky March on the dashboard.
"Good morning, Sarge, what's new?" De Keyzer tried to sound as awake as possible.
"Probable theft ... Degroof's," said Versavel unruffled. "Steen Street," he added, knowing that De Keyzer was bound to ask him anyway. If you had said "city hall," he would have asked for the address.
"Signs of breaking and entering?" said De Keyzer after a pause.
Versavel hated De Keyzer with a vengeance. He was the youngest officer in the division, and everyone knew that had made promotion via one or other political back door. His father was a vice admiral no less, in the Belgian navy, and still this was the best he could arrange for junior.
"Are you sure it's theft?"
"Negative, but the entire shop has been cleaned out. There's broken glass on the floor, and gloves," Versavel responded curtly. As far as he knew, no one got along with De Keyzer. The man was stupid and arrogant and his skin was thicker than the rubber of a pre-war condom.
"Do you need back-up, Sarge?"
"Jesus Christ," Versavel cursed under his breath. "If I was you, I would phone the Deputy public prosecutor on call and the owner of the shop. Degroof ... got it?" he snarled.
De Keyzer didn't react to Versavel's outburst. He knew the man and was in no doubt that he wasn't afraid to make subtle reference to the incompetence of an inexperienced officer in his official report. He's been watching too many American cop shows. They're always calling in the Deputy DA to do their dirty work, he thought to himself, but wisely held his tongue.
"Of course, spot on," he retorted, slightly indignant. "And I'll make sure you get to finish your shift on the double."
"Do that," Versavel sneered.
It seemed an eternity before Hannelore Martens finally heard the phone ring. She had only been appointed Deputy public prosecutor a couple of weeks earlier and this was her first night on call.
If anything happens, it's always early on Sunday morning, an older colleague had warned her. Hannelore Martens threw on her dressing gown, switched on the light, and rushed downstairs. Her phone was in the living room by the window. She hoped nothing had happened to her father.
Neither she nor De Keyzer had the slightest inkling that a common, garden-variety robbery was no reason to get a Deputy out of bed. Everyone in the division also knew that Versavel wasn't averse to the odd practical joke now and then, and Hannelore was new. A prime target.
"Duty officer De Keyzer, ma'am," he said in his best Flemish. "Sorry to disturb you, but it's a serious matter."
Hannelore Martens listened to Bart De Keyzer's detailed report, her heart pounding. The man had a rather irritating talent: he needed ten times the number of words Versavel, or anyone else, would have used to explain what was going on. When he was finished, she wasn't really sure what she was supposed to do. The name Degroof rang a bell. Should she inform the public prosecutor?
"Casualties?" she asked just to be sure.
"Negative, ma'am. There's not even a trace of the culprits." Her male colleagues had assured her that the only way to learn the ropes was on the job. But what should she do? Nothing, perhaps? Just wait for the report. But if that was normal procedure why had the duty officer phoned her?
Never hesitate in front of a subordinate and act firmly in every circumstance, the same colleagues had instructed her. She could hear De Keyzer breathing on the other end of the line. She wasn't to know that the duty officer, like so many other stupid and arrogant people, fostered an almost blind respect for his superiors.
"Might as well take a look for myself," she said with confidence, "now that I'm awake."
"Righto, ma'am. Would you like me to inform the owner?"
"Please. Tell him I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
"Okay, ma'am. I'll inform my people that you'll be taking personal charge."
Before she could say "thank you," De Keyzer hung up. The excitement made her shiver. She took off her dressing gown and headed for the bathroom behind the kitchen: nothing more than a cramped shower and an old-fashioned washbasin.
Her neighbor opposite, a retired postmaster with all the time in the world, slurped at his first cup of coffee. He was an early riser. The opportunity to admire Miss Martens's elegant silhouette in all its glory for a couple of seconds was an added, if unforeseen, bonus that morning. He never looked across the street on other days.
Excerpted from The Square of Revenge by Pieter Aspe, Brian Doyle. Copyright © 2013 Pieter Aspe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted March 12, 2014
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