Maigret in Antwerp
by Joe Richards
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It was late on a Friday afternoon. Maigret, not particularly busy at the moment, was looking out of the open window of his office at the Quai des Orfevres. His thoughts on this warm day, like those of so many others, were on the approaching summer holidays. The blue of the cloudless sky was almost turquoise. The temperature was almost 90 degrees and one could be forgiven for thinking that today was the thirteenth of August rather than the thirteenth of May, which it actually was. Tugs and their trains of barges glided silently by on the surface of the Seine. A constant stream of cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians crossed the Pont Saint Michel in both directions. How good would the fishing be in Meung-sur-Loire this summer? Come to think of it, how good would the fishing be in Meung this weekend? Maigret slowly walked over to his desk and sat down. He lit his pipe and reached for the telephone to call his wife. He wanted to know what she thought about going to Meung on such short notice. Just as his hand touched the receiver he had a little surprise. The telephone rang. This ringing sound awoke Maigret from his little reverie and he wasn't very happy about it. He noticed the time as he picked up the handset. It was nearly quarter past five in the afternoon.
The voice at the other end was not that of a native French speaker, but all of the words were correct. It seemed somehow familiar yet Maigret couldn't quite place it. "This is Superintendent Bertels from the police in Antwerp. We met at a conference in Brussels a couple of years ago."
Bertels-Bertels-Bertels. Was that the short fellow with glasses and long side whiskers as were popular a hundred or more years ago or was it someone else?
"What can I do for you this afternoon?" asked Maigret, wondering why someone would wait until less than an hour before the start of what promised to be an excellent weekend to bother him about something. Perhaps the weather in Antwerp wasn't as nice as it was in Paris at the moment?
"There's been something very strange going on here and my chief thought we should ask you for some help. It's really out of the ordinary."
"Yes. It seems there was a murder here yesterday at the city zoo. It wasn't a visitor or a staff member that was murdered. It was one of the animals."
"An animal murdered you say? How do you know it was murder?"
"The preliminary autopsy report just came in and it points that way."
"Yes, we thought it was indicated in the circumstances."
"What kind of animal was it?"
"It was a hippopotamus." came the answer.
"A what? Did you say 'hippopotamus'?"
"Yes, exactly that."
"They really did an autopsy on a hippopotamus?" By this time Maigret was beyond all belief. And very curious. In all of his many years with the police he had never been asked to investigate the murder of an animal before, especially such a large one. "I'll have a chat with my director and see if he can spare me for a while. Give me your phone number and I'll call you back as soon as I can. What time are you going home tonight?"
"I'll wait for your call."
Maigret went down the corridor and walked through the baize door that led into the director's office. "Ah, Maigret. Are you going anywhere on this fine weekend that we'll be having?"
"I'd sort of planned on going to Meung to get in some fishing but I just had a call from Superintendent Bertels in Antwerp. He asked me if I could come up there and help them out with a strange and difficult case that's just started. Are you going to be needing me for the next few days or so?"
"I think we can probably survive for a short time without you. You're not working on anything big at the moment, are you?"
"No, everything's been fairly quiet lately."
"Well let's hope it continues. What's going on in Antwerp that they have to ask for your expert advice?"
"They said a hippopotamus at the zoo was murdered yesterday."
"Wait a minute, did you say something about a hippopotamus?"
"Yes, really. That's what they said and they didn't know where to begin looking for a solution."
"I thought that's what you has said but I didn't want to believe it. Then again, I've always heard that strange things happen in Belgium. Good luck and let me know how it turns out."
Maigret returned to his office and called the railway information service to ask about trains to Antwerp. He decided to leave on Sunday morning. He then called Bertels and told him when he would arrive. "OK, that's at Berchem station. I'll be waiting for you on the platform."
"Fine. I'm looking forward to seeing you then."
When Maigret arrived at his flat on the boulevard Richard-Lenoir he told his wife what had transpired earlier, including the part about his now-cancelled fishing trip to Meung. Then he asked about that evening's dinner.
"Because it's so hot I didn't want to cook anything. I thought I'd wait until you came back and then go down to the charcuterie for some cold meats or else we could eat out tonight."
"I like the second idea better. When can you be ready?"
"In about 15 minutes. Is that all right?"
When they left it was still daylight so they took a bus up to the place de la Republique and another one from there to Montmarte. They walked around for a while, stopping every so often to examine the menus posted outside of various restaurants. They finally ended up at Chez Maniere on the place Constantin-Pecquer where they had eaten several times before.
I had the idea we would end up here." said Madame Maigret. "The food's always good and I like the atmosphere. It's really a shame we never looked for an apartment around here. Even thought rue Caulaincourt is a busy street, it's a little out of the mainstream. I also like the trees and benches on both sides of the street. Somehow it's more like the main street in a provincial town or even in a large village than a street in a district of Paris."
Maigret had to agree but he said "We have our own trees on the boulevard Richard-Lenoir."
"Yes, but it's not the same thing. Over there the trees are in the middle of the street and you have to take your life in your hands to cross over in order to enjoy them."
Score another one for his wife, he thought as what she said was true. He couldn't remember the last time they had sat under those trees even though they had been there since they had taken their apartment over thirty years ago. "In less that three years I'll be retired and we'll be moving to Meung. It's not worth it at this point to move house but I do agree with you. This is a very nice neighborhood here. The only problem is that we would have Inspector Grumpy for a neighbor." Grumpy, otherwise known as Lognon, lived at number 93 rue Caulaincourt, within sight of the brasserie in which they were then dining.
"Oh, yes. I'd forgotten. Actually, he's not so bad. It's his wife who's really unbearable. I'd be grumpy too if you were always like that."
Maigret smiled at that remark and as he did their dinners arrived. During the meal they discussed plans for their summer vacation. Madame Maigret's sister was planning a family reunion in Colmar for the end of July. They agreed to spend at least part of their holiday there so she could catch up on all the family news. After they had eaten they walked up the avenue Junot as far as the steps that led down to rue Lepic. From there they went down the rue Tholoze and turned towards the place des Abbesses. There they stopped for a nightcap on a terrace before getting in the Metro for the ride home.
The next day was a continuation of the previous one with open blue skies and high temperatures. Madame Maigret did her marketing in the local shops while Maigret went out for some pipe tobacco and a newspaper. They later walked down to the place de la Bastille and had lunch at Chez Leon near the bottom of the boulevard Beaumarchais. Afterwards they crossed the street and continued along it towards the rue du Chemin Vert. The lower part of the boulevard Beaumarchais has many camera shops and Maigret would stop at each window to look at the new and secondhand equipment that was on display. He had gone into two or three different shops to ask the price of something or other but in the end didn't buy anything. When they reached the rue du Chemin Vert they turned right, crossed the rue Amelot, and walked up to their flat at 31 boulevard Richard-Lenoir which was at the intersection of the rue du Chemin Vert.
The train trip from Paris to Antwerp the next day was uneventful. He ate lunch in the dining car and watched the landscape roll by, smoking his pipe most of the while. He got off at Berchem station where Superintendent Bertels was waiting to meet him. Bertels was in fact the small man with the long whiskers that Maigret had vaguely remembered from the meeting in Brussels. They shook hands and walked to another platform for the very short trip in another train to the central station. As it turned out, the zoo was right beside the large and impressive terminus so they didn't have far to go.
Instead of to the zoo, the policemen walked across the street to the Hotel Florida. "I took the liberty of getting you a room here for the night. If you like it, you can work it out with the reception to stay longer. If not, we will find somewhere else in the morning." They got the room key and went upstairs to room 26. Maigret was washing up when Bertels offered him a tour of the district and dinner. "Let's not go into the first place we come across as we're spoiled for choice around here. By the time we've been walking for fifteen minutes we'll have passed at least a hundred places to eat."
That turned out to be correct. After some time looking around and reading menu boards they settled on a small Chinese restaurant on a side street. Maigret almost never ate Chinese food and didn't know what to order. Bertels asked him a few questions about his tastes and ordered a curry dish with large shrimp for Maigret. He ordered shrimp for himself but in a sweet and sour sauce. Maigret thoroughly enjoyed his dinned because the curry sauce wasn't too spicy and left him with no unpleasant after effects.
After their dinner, which had been washed down with some excellent Belgian beer, they returned to the hotel. "What time would you like me to come by in the morning?"
"Not before nine."
"That's good. You can have breakfast here or in one of the little places we just passed. We'll first go to my office where I'll introduce you to everyone and bring you up to date on the case. After that we'll go over to the zoo and meet the director."
"Sounds good to me. See you in the morning."
It took some doing to get past the security guards at the zoo entrance, which was not open to the public at that moment. Someone had apparently forgotten to tell them that the pair were expected visitors. Once inside they were shown to the director's office. The director, a tall thin man with a gray mustache, was rather distinguished looking. His many and different qualifications were hanging on the paneled walls of his office. Just behind his large leather chair was a very large photo of a monkey. On the dark wooden frame was a small brass plaque with some Flemish words on it that Maigret could not understand even if he had been standing close enough to read them. Maigret and the director shook hands as Bertels introduced them. His name was Peter Corremans and he was quite sad that something like this had happened in his zoo, the largest in Belgium. Of course animals regularly die of old age and sometimes from illness but this was the first time that he had ever dealt with or even heard about the murder of a zoo animal. Using Bertels as a translator, Maigret asked Corremans some questions and learned that he was not present at the time of the event. He had been at the city hall discussing his budget for the summer season. He had of course questioned most of his staff but did not get any substantial results from doing this. No one had at first suspected that anything out of the ordinary had taken place when the dead animal was discovered. It wasn't until one of the employees had noticed something wrong with the corpse that the police were called in. Maigret then asked a few more questions of a general nature, ending up with who Corremans worked for.
"It's him," said the director, pointing to the large framed photo behind his desk. "It says so right here on this plaque. That way I can always tell people that the monkeys are running the zoo here. Actually, it's the deputy mayor and you'll normally find him at the town hall. As it happens I've got a lot of work to do in preparing for the summer season so I'll have someone show you around. Please feel free to look at everything and question everyone. I've heard that you're one of the best in your business, so to speak, and I hope you can soon get to the bottom of this. What I'm really worried about is the impact this will have on our summer visitor counts if the case isn't solved. That could be a disaster."
A few minutes later they were following a young woman around the zoo grounds. She seemed quite knowledgeable and explained in detail the situation of each cage and habitat and its occupants. From time to time Maigret would stop and ask questions of any of zoo staff they met in passing. He was getting some idea of how the zoo functioned, how many animals there were, how many visitors it had what its budget was and a wealth of other details.
He noticed there were a fair number of people about doing cleaning, painting, and gardening tasks. "Those are all contract workers, the ones wearing the red and white shirts. they are only here a few times a year for a few days each time so the work is contracted out. " This was the explanation given by their guide, whose name was Tiana. She had very long blonde hair and the blue eyes that almost served as trademarks for many Flemish people. She was also very attractive. Given how much she knew about the animals, Maigret thought she must have just finished her studies. "We'll go over to the hippopotamus habitat now and I'll ask if we can get in. Hippos are rather dangerous animals, which is just the opposite of what most people think of them. Their jaws are large enough and strong enough to cut a crocodile in two with just one bite but for all that they are vegetarians. They will have to put the residents out before we can go in and that will take some time. Tiana spoke perfect French to Maigret but gave directions to the staff in Flemish. She spoke for several minutes with someone who hadn't yet been introduced to Maigret and then returned. "This will take the better part of an hour so let's go to the cafeteria for something while we are waiting for them to get everything ready."
Tiana lived in nearby Hoboken and came to work on the tram. As it turned out she still had one more year of studies at the university to finish. She had loved animals since she had been a small child and had grown up with assorted cats, dogs, rabbits, goats, and even a pony at one point. She had started at the zoo as a volunteer when she started secondary school and had done internships there in each of her university years. She was studying zoology and had already been offered a position at the zoo at the completion of her studies. During the break she explained the life cycle of the hippopotamus to Maigret and Bertels. By then they had the impression that she could have done the same for any animal in the zoo. When asked, she said her favorite animal was the raccoon. "Raccoons are marvelous animals that make miserable pets. They are extremely intelligent and clever. They can open almost anything with their hands, so nothing in your house is safe from them. They also eat almost anything that doesn't run faster than they do. It's a shame there aren't more of them living in the wild in Belgium, especially in the Ardennes region." All of this prompted Maigret to rule her out as a suspect. After listening to her for a few more minutes another employee arrived and indicated that it was now safe to enter the hippopotamus enclosure. At that Tiana told Maigret and Bertels that first they would have to go to the locker room and get some wading boots. "It's not too pleasant to step in what a hippopotamus makes the most of." she explained.
The three of them entered the hippopotamus habitat accompanied by its manager, a man named Erik Van Langendonck. He led them around and explained everything. "This is the largest exhibit that we have in the zoo. Hippos can't live without water so we had to build them this lake, which is about 8 feet deep in the center. We normally have six or seven of them here but the number varies because of births and deaths. Now we have just five so we may see if another zoo has an extra one they want to get rid of. The biggest problem is feeding them. We need to provide grazing land and a few hundred pounds of vegetation each day for each adult. That's a lot of grass and leaves!"
For the first time Maigret felt he was starting to make a little progress. Now he was on the victim's home ground and thanks to Tiana's explanations he had at least a basic idea of how he had lived. It wasn't much to go on but it was at least a start. He and the others followed Van Langendonck all over the area which was for the most part surrounded by a tall fence of iron bars. It was almost as if these animals lived in a prison of sorts, he thought. He was starting to form some ideas, however vague at this point, and making up a list of people that he would like to question. He would have also liked to question some of the animals for information. Surely the crime had not passed unnoticed among them. As this was not possible, even with Tiana to help him, he put the deputy mayor at the top of his list. By this time Maigret had narrowed the possible suspects down into three groups. As Wahkou, which was the victim's name, had lived exclusively in the hippo habitat, access to him was rather limited. The only other animals that could have come close enough to him to cause any damage were the other residents of the same habitat. Since they couldn't be questioned Maigret went on to the next group. That was all the current and recent former zoo employees, volunteers, interns, and the contract cleaning people. He thought it would not be too hard to get a list of these and he was more correct than he realized. It had already been prepared and was waiting for him at the director's office. He would ask Bertels to have the list checked to see if anyone on it had any prior dealings with the police for any reason. The last group was the one that caused the most worry. It was the hundreds or even thousands of people who had visited the zoo in the past week or so. Of course no record of their names existed anywhere but he decided to ask the ticket sellers if they had seen anyone more than once during the week or if anyone had attracted their attention for whatever reason. What really puzzled Maigret was why anyone would want to kill a hippopotamus. This was something that he just could not understand. Had one of the other hippos killed him there would have been the teeth marks on the corpse and these were not found. Bertels had already shown him the autopsy report but as it was written in Flemish Maigret couldn't understand a word of it. At that point he did not even know that the Flemish word for hippopotamus was 'nijlpaard', which literally means 'horse of the Nile'.
It was not unusual at the start of an investigation for Maigret to have no clear picture of the case or a strong sense of a direction to follow. That was certainly true this time but it was on a level that he had never experienced before. Normally there were concierges to question, the victim's family, friends, co-workers, and so forth. Here he had none of this to work with and to make things worse, everything around him was going on in a language that he didn't understand or speak a word of. He had the idea of being in a room consisting of four brick walls with no windows or doors. He wasn't sure of how he had gotten there or of how he would get back out again. It was very frustrating but there was nothing to be done about it. He just had to have a solution. He knew that sooner or later there would be something that would put him on the right track and lead him to the needed solution at the end of the trail. For it was a problem and it did have to be solved. And sooner rather than later.
The little tour was just about over. During the past half hour or so Maigret had learned more about hippopotamuses that he had ever known in his entire life up to that point. Van Langendonck had been in charge of these large animals for the past eight years and had helped to design their current habitat. After spending some time with him in his little domain Maigret decided that he couldn't be a suspect. Through Bertels he asked to interview all of Van Langendonck's subordinates the following afternoon. After they had finished Maigret and Bertels shook his hand again and then returned to the director's office. The secretary gave them the list of names that Maigret wanted but had not yet asked for. They exchanged farewells with Cooremans and Tiana and then departed.
As it was no distance, they went to the bar of the Hotel Florida for a drink.
"You're sure you won't have any trouble finding something for dinner tonight?" asked Bertels.
"I don't know. I think I'd have a problem to tell the waiter what I wanted much the less read the menu."
"Oh, don't worry about that. This is a big international tourist area and the center of the world diamond trade. If the waiter doesn't speak French, just ask for a menu in French."
"Of course. I should have thought of that. In the morning I'd like to see the deputy mayor and question Van Langendonck's crew in the afternoon."
"OK, I'll set that up with a phone call to the town hall Van Langendonck is already expecting us. Anything else?"
"I forgot to ask the young woman, Tiana I think her name is, if she had any idea of who the culprit might be."
"I suspected that if she did, we would be investigating two murders rather than just one."
"You're probably right. She doesn't seem to be the killer type but her devotion to the animals is amazing. I can see her as the zoo director at sometime in the future."
I certainly agree with you on that, but it won't happen for some time to come. Cooremans will retire in a couple of years and then someone else will take his place. She's too young for that much responsibility in the short term. So, if everything is all right I'll see you in the morning. If you like, we will be pleased to have you over for dinner tomorrow night."
"Oh, thanks. I'm looking forward to it.
Bertels and Maigret took a tram to the town hall. They were to see the deputy mayor at half past ten and had arrived a few minutes early. The secretary, a middle-aged woman with a few gray hairs, welcomed them. According to the engraved nameplate on her desk her name was Berthe Agten. "Both the deputy mayor and the mayor himself want to meet you." she explained through Bertels. "They have had an unforeseen emergency this morning and they are still dealing with the problem. They expect that they will be late but they can not say how long it will take them to resolve the situation. They have both asked me to apologize to you for the delay."
This struck Maigret as somewhat strange. Or maybe it was just another strange part in a strange case. He had just been given a polite apology for a delay that had not yet happened. In France it would be almost unthinkable for a civil servant of any rank to apologize to anyone for anything, much the less to do so in advance. This thought put him in a good frame of mind that lasted the rest of the morning and on into the afternoon. About forty minutes later the secretary asked them to follow her into the mayor's office. Bertels made the introductions and everyone shook hands. The mayor spoke passable French but not the deputy so Bertels would have to ask Maigret's questions for him. After a few minutes of pleasantries and even more apologies the mayor excused himself, leaving the others in his office. This was another courtesy that Maigret had noticed and it served to improve his optimism about the case.
"I suppose" said the deputy mayor, whose name was Jan Verhasselt "that you have a few questions for me since I'm the monkey that Corremans works for." This took Maigret aback and he startled. "Oh, I don't take it at all personally because that photo was there long before I came to work here and became his boss. I really think this case was a big shock for him. He came to see me about it the next morning and really was quite shaken up. It is in fact true that he was here discussing his budget when the crime occurred. Like all of my other department heads, he's always asking for more money. The difference between him and most of the other chiefs is that zoo of his actually turns a profit each year. A few of the other departments more or less break even but most of them, like the police, operate at a loss. Personally, I can't see how Corremans could be involved.
"I didn't think he would be but I wonder if you noticed anything out of the ordinary with him or with the zoo's operations lately?"
No, nothing at all. I suppose this must be very difficult for you as you can't question anyone who actually saw anything."
"At least up to now that's been correct. After lunch I'm going to question some more of the zoo workers. I'm not really expecting a large breakthrough but maybe one of them knows something that they haven't come out and said up to now."
"Well good luck. Let me know if you find out anything."
"Before you leave, let me show you around the town hall. It's an interesting old building that was started in 1561. We have enough old paintings, statues, books and furniture to qualify as a museum." Maigret and Bertels dutifully followed their host around the building and they weren't disappointed. It did have an impressive collection of various artworks depicting life in the port city over the ages, some of them done by Flemish masters. It was an hour or so well spent, an interesting interlude in a difficult case. Afterward the three of them lunched together in a restaurant on the Groenplaats, a very large square lined on all sides with buildings from the middle ages.
After eating they decided to return to the zoo on foot. They walked down de Keizerlei, the most important shopping street in Antwerp. As they walked along Maigret noticed that some of the shops were the equal to any he had seen in Paris. This gave him the idea to look for a present to take back with him for Madame Maigret when he had some free time.
Maigret was feeling none too good when they arrived back at the zoo's gates. The prospect of a long afternoon questioning people who couldn't give him any answers did not amuse him. They went straight in to the director's office and Cooremans came out to tell them that the corpse would be returning that afternoon if they wanted to see it. Maigret had seen many dead bodies before but this one would certainly be a first for him. As Corremans hadn't mentioned the exact time of the body's arrival Maigret thought it would be wise to start with Van Langendonck's workers. Bertels had already told him that none of the employees had a police record and in a way Maigret wished that had not been the case as it might give him a likely suspect or two. Three of the five men were waiting outside of the office of their boss. The other two were working nearby and could easily be brought to the office when they were needed.
The one that Maigret was most interested in speaking to was the one who discovered that something was out of the ordinary. His name was Joris Cannaerts and he had been working at the zoo for nearly twelve years. Before that he had been an animal trainer in a large circus. "Working for a zoo is much better than a circus, even a big and well known one. said Cannaerts. "The hours are regular, you get to sleep in the same place every night and the paycheck arrives every two weeks. Sometimes I miss the atmosphere and the applause, but I'd never go back. Also, no matter how well you train a tiger, he's still a tiger and may decide to have you for dinner some evening. If he does, there isn't much you can do about it. Wouldn't that be a grand spectacle for an opening night? Here you still have risks but hey are much lower that what I used to put up with." Maigret could not remember a conversation like this taking place in any of his thousands of interrogations over the years. It was both grim and strange but the fatalism expressed made Maigret believe that Cannaerts, in spite of his lack of formal education, was a true professional in the world of large exotic animals.
"So what did you see on Wahkou's corpse that you thought was unusual?"
"It was a pattern of marks on his left shoulder."
"What did they look like?"
"They were a very dark color, between black and blue. The pattern was similar to what you would get if you spread out the fingers of one hand. There were also a few random spots of the same color nearby. The spots were of different sizes, from about one to four inches across."
"Can you draw me a picture?"
"I'll try." After a minute he gave Maigret the paper. It was very much the way Maigret had imagined it from Cannaerts' description.
"What do you think caused this?"
"I really have no idea. I've never seen something like this before. I yelled for Van Langendonck to come over and have a look. Afterwards he went off to the main building to tell someone over there. He came back here a few minutes later. After that I wasn't involved any longer."
"OK, I may want to ask you some more questions later on. Will you be at work for the rest of the week?"
"No. A lot of us take our weekends in the middle of the week because there are fewer visitors here then. You can always ask Van Langendonck or someone if you need to find me."
The next two interviews went fairly quickly. Neither of the people knew about the incident at the time it happened and one of them was not even at work that day. The fourth man was sent for and this gave Maigret and Bertels a short break. In the end the interview didn't matter as he had been working in the elephant cages that day and knew nothing. Bertels suggested they go out to where the last man was working rather than wait for someone to bring him to the office.
They walked for nearly ten minutes when Maigret could see a large gray bulk on the ground. It was Wahkou's corpse. beside it, near the head, sat a man. "That's Niklaas Schoofs. He's been here for just over thirty years now and has worked in just about every part of the zoo. He knows a fair amount about each animal but he's not an expert on any of them." As they approached Van Langendonck signaled Schoofs to get up. He did so, rising to his feet with the help of his shovel, which he used as a cane of sorts. Van Langendonck introduced them and they all somewhat solemnly shook hands. Maigret noticed that Schoofs' face was reddened and there were still a few traces of tears on his face.
"You were very close to Wahkou, were you?" asked Maigret "Was he your favorite?"
"For a hippopotamus Wahkou was certainly good enough but that's not why I'm so unhappy at the moment." he sobbed.
"Well, what is it then? It must really be something to get a grown man into your state at the moment."
Schoofs held his shovel off the ground and at arm's length, as if he was offering it to Maigret. "I'm so unhappy right now because I'm the poor bastard that has to bury him!"
Bertels gave a start as the words came out in Flemish. After a slight delay he repeated them in French for Maigret. Van Langendonck had an impassive look on his face as if to say that this kind of thing went on as a matter of course here.
Maigret, upon hearing the translation, was stunned. Totally stunned as never before on any case that he had ever been involved with. The blow to him was almost physical. For one thing he had not up to now given any thought to the disposal of the body. One just can't leave something like that lying around out in the open as it was doing at the moment. Something would have to be done and he had never thought of what that something might be. The other thing that struck Maigret so hard was the hugeness of the task facing Schoofs. No wonder he was upset and crying! Was there some local law or custom that forbade the use of an excavator or some other machine to dig the hole? If there was, why wasn't the entire zoo staff all out there working together to get the job done faster? Maigret's head seemed to be spinning and he nearly lost his balance. He gave an uneasy look to Bertels and took him aside. "Can we get out of here now? I think I've had about enough for one day."
"Yes, why not? I think we could both use a strong drink right now."
They left the zoo and went to the bar of the Hotel Florida. They each had a large brandy and spoke quietly for about twenty minutes. It was nearly four in the afternoon. Bertels said he needed to return to his office for a while to find out how his other cases were going at the moment.
"Our offer for dinner tonight is still good if you wish. I can be here at quarter past six."
"Oh, yes. Of course. I'd be quite pleased to."
"I'll meet you in front of the hotel. I've got a blue Renault."
"Fine. See you then."
Maigret went up to his room. He took of his coat and tie and opened the window. He began to wish he had taken another hotel because this one overlooked the zoo entrance, the last thing in the world he wanted to see at the moment. He started pacing the floor, his hands behind his back. He was desperately searching for something in his brain. A key, a link, a connection of some sort. What was it? At one or two points he felt that he had started to get somewhere, but where were they? Why did a very attractive young woman who had yet to finish her studies seem to know more than anyone else? Why did the zoo director work for a monkey? Why did the mayor's secretary apologize to him for keeping him waiting? Why did the deputy mayor claim to be the monkey that the director worked for? And why, in Antwerp at least, was it necessary for only one man with a hand shovel to dig a hole by himself that was big enough to bury a hippopotamus in? Where was it, the thread he was looking for? What were the main points again? Attractive, monkey, apologize, monkey, and wasn't monkey used twice? Was that the key he was looking for? Was a monkey in some way involved with this? If so, how? Or were Verhasselt and Cooremans mixed up in something together? He didn't know but at least all this was giving him a few new things to look at the next day. He felt a little calmer now. He sat down in the one chair in the room and lit his pipe. As he smoked, images and thoughts about the case continued to cross his mind but in no particular order. He had to decide on a plan for the next day. He started this only to stop it a few minutes later when he realized that it was almost six o'clock. He washed up, got dressed and went downstairs to take his place on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
Bertels arrived at the hotel just after Maigret had started to wait for him. He got into the little car and they started off towards the town of Lier. It took about 25 minutes to cover the ten miles because of the evening rush hour. Bertels and his wife lived in a small private house on a quiet street not far from the town center. They went inside and Bertels introduced Maigret to his wife, who was named Brigitte.
"I'm happy to meet you after hearing so much about you. Let me take you jacket. Would you like something to drink?" They sat talking in the living room and they were soon joined by a large gray cat. "That's Lasko. He's quite friendly and likes nothing better than to be petted." After a while the phone rang and Bertels excused himself to answer it. He spoke in Flemish for a few minutes and then returned. Maigret asked if he had to return to the office, as often happened when the phone rang on the boulevard Richard-Lenoir. "Oh no, not this time. It was one of the neighbors." The conversation continued but was again interrupted by the telephone. This happened several more times and Bertels seemed exasperated. "It seems every policeman in Belgium knows you're in Antwerp and that we're working together on an important case. They're all asking what it's like to work with one of the masters and would it be possible to meet you and so on. If that phone rings on more time, I'll... His words were again interrupted as the instrument rang yet again. As before he spoke in Flemish to someone for a few minutes before hanging up.
"If this keeps up it will spoil our dinner. I hate to ask this given that you came here expecting a quiet dinner at home, but would you mind if we went out to eat tonight? There's a nice place not too far away where the food is always good even if it's not the same as home cooking."
"Maybe that would be better, although I was looking forward to whatever local delicacy that your wife was going to prepare."
"Fine then. We'll leave in about ten minutes or so."
They made their preparations and stepped outside. "It's only a few minutes in the car or somewhat longer on foot. Which would you prefer?"
"Let's walk. That will give me a better picture of your neighborhood."
"Off we go then. I wonder if..." he turned and looked at his wife for a few seconds as he thought of something. "Yes, why not? We could just as easily eat there as anywhere else. Lier is famous for its special clock with thirteen faces. It sits on a small square and there are several places to eat there. I was originally planning to go to a place by the train station that we like but we'll go to the clock square instead.. I also want to show you our town hall, which is older than Antwerp's but not as large."
They walked along and Maigret took everything in. He was amazed at the contrast between Lier and the center of Antwerp. It was far from being a country village but it was also far from being a big city. After a short while a tower came into view. "Is that the famous clock tower?" asked Maigret. "Oh no, that's one of the church towers." Came the reply from Madame Bertels. The clock tower is much shorter. To confuse things even more, the town hall also has a clock tower . Don't worry, we'll be there soon." A few minutes later they came in sight of the clock tower, or the right side of it. When they were standing directly in front of it his hosts gave him an explanation of how it worked and the special function of each of the faces. Maigret could tell from the ease with which they spoke that this was not the first time they had explained the complicated mechanism to someone.
"We'll eat at that place over there with the terrace." Bertels explained and gestured with his left hand. "We will come back a little later after we have seen the town hall. They continued walking, this time along a street lined with small shops on both sides. The clock on the town hall's tower was nothing out of the ordinary, having but one face. Madame Bertels explained that the building was almost exactly two hundred years older than Antwerp's town hall but the clock here was no longer the original one. They walked around the building and went into a side entrance. This led to a police station where several men were on duty. Bertels seemed to be no stranger there and in short order shook everyone's hand and then introduced Maigret to the group. After these formalities were completed he led his wife and Maigret through a door and down a flight of stairs the led to a hallway. "Through here, I want to show you something."
They entered a large brightly lit room that contained several long tables that had been set. There were also a number of people inside who had arrived earlier. Maigret looked around and started to wonder. A good number of the people present were strangers to him. The rest included most of the people that he had been working with on this investigation. Were they expecting him to give them an explanation of where he was on the case and on what his methods were? He recognized several of Bertels' colleagues but didn't't remember their names. He also saw Cooremans, Verhasselt, Van Langendonck, Tiana, the mayor of Antwerp, Schoofs, and a few others from the zoo. He looked at Bertels and said "I thought I was having a quiet dinner together with you and your wife. I didn't expect to be doing a review of the case this evening."
Bertels motioned to Maigret to sit down at the center of the first table. Then he signed for someone to open a door. When it opened, a small procession started to enter the room. At the head were two superintendents from Brussels, one now retired, that Maigret had worked with on several cases in the past. They were followed by none other than the director of the Police Judiciaire, which gave Maigret a start. Right behind him came Lucas and Janvier. They in turn were followed by Chief Inspector Pyke of Scotland Yard. Maigret couldn't believe what was happening. He never thought that he would be meeting Pyke here in Belgium. Had he also been called in on the case? They shook hands warmly and Pyke mentioned that they had saved the best for last. As soon as he stopped speaking, Madame Maigret made her entrance. Maigret had no idea of what was going on around him and why. This was totally unexpected. He stood up and embraced his wife and they sat down together.
While all of this was taking place, Bertels had gone over to the lectern and switched on the microphone. "May I have everyone's attention, please?" he asked in Flemish, French, and English. When the room quieted down he indicated that he would first explain everything in Flemish and then in French. As Pyke was the only English speaker and had been briefed beforehand, the story would not need telling a third time.
Bertels went on in Flemish for close to ten minutes. From time to time his remarks were punctuated by laughter from the Flemish speaking part of the audience. At the end of his little speech most of the people in the room applauded but Maigret didn't know why.
When the room fell silent again Bertels retold his story in French. There was, he said, no murder of a hippopotamus at the zoo or anywhere else. Wahkou had died of old age and this had been expected for some time. The marks had been applied to him after the fact. As it happened, Wahkou's timing was perfect. The zoo was going to be closed anyway for the contract workers to come in as it periodically was. What got things started was that one of Bertels' men had heard of the death through a cousin who worked at the zoo. He jokingly mentioned that Bertels should investigate the incident and that set the wheels in motion. Bertels made up a little plan and discussed it with his chief, who was present that evening. The two of them went to see the deputy mayor and the zoo director. When everyone was in agreement, Bertels' chief phoned to the director of the Police Judiciaire to enlist his cooperation. When everything had been agreed with everyone, Bertels phoned Maigret to ask his help in solving the difficult but nonexistent crime. Maigret innocently obliged and duly came to Antwerp to start his work there. In the meantime Bertels had been making all the arrangements that had led up to this gathering., many of them right in front of Maigret himself. "And now" Bertels went on "I suppose that most of you want to know what the reason for this little meeting is. Well, I'll tell you. We are all here this evening to celebrate the birthday of Commissaire Jules Maigret! Happy Birthday!" With this applause burst out again, this time from the French speakers in the room.
"B-but it's not my birthday!" Maigret exclaimed.
"Of course it's not." Said Bertels. "We know that. We also know that if really had been your birthday or even close to it you may have suspected something. It's just that the timing was otherwise perfect to put something over on you. We knew you didn't understand a word of Flemish so it was easy for us to make this happen. I made most of the arrangements for tonight right in front of you. We could have never done something like this anywhere in France."
Maigret turned to his wife and asked he when she knew what was going on. "Not until just after you left. The director of the PJ phoned me and told me everything. Of course I wanted to be part of it."
He got up and started shaking everyone's hand. Tiana even kissed him on the cheek in front of Madame Maigret, which made him blush. Just after that the dinners were brought in on serving carts. During the meal Maigret's wife told him about their trip. Bertels had arranged for their hotel plus the visits to the town hall, the city center and the zoo, all timed to coincide with Maigret being elsewhere at the moment. After the meal Corremans explained that the most difficult part of the entire operation was finding a place big enough and cold enough to keep Wahkou's corpse intact for a few days until it was needed. Schoofs added that he would not have to be digging any holes as by now Wahkou had been cremated. A few other short speeches were followed by some presentations and a few gifts.
Afterwards they went their separate ways. Bertels and his wife led the Maigrets back to the special clock tower. The restaurant there was still open so they sat down on the terrace and enjoyed some ice cream together. Bertels ordered for everyone and while they waited he explained that this stop was to make up for the dinner here that had been promised earlier. The ice cream arrived in a few minutes. The waiter placed the bowls in front of each of the four people. Bertels ordered pistachio for himself and mocha for his wife. For the Maigrets he ordered the same for both of them.
"This is very good, what is it?" asked Madame Maigret. Maigret himself also seemed to be enjoying it.
"Het is nijlpaard." Replied Bertels.
Maigret nearly choked. That was the one Flemish word that he had learned in the past few days because he had heard it so many times.
"What did you say?" asked Madame Maigret
"Hippopotame." Replied Madame Bertels in French.
Maigret and his wife exchanged glances. Their eyes widened and the expressions on their faces turned to disgust.
"No, no. Really it's speculaas. That's a Belgian specialty that probably doesn't exist in France." Bertels hastened to explain. Their faces went back to normal and everyone continued with their ice cream.
"Why don't you both stay with us tonight? We have a guest room and it won't be any trouble. And in the morning I'll prepare you a real Flemish breakfast." Asked Madame Bertels.
"It's no problem for me as I'm not going to work in the morning. I'm not expected back until Monday and I have it good authority that you aren't either."
"Oh, well then, that's fine. And thanks for everything you've done for us. It was really wonderful. Maybe one day we will be able to show you around Paris."
June 19, 2004
The image of the pygmy hippopotamus, Choeropsis liberiensis, is based on this 1994 stamp of the République du Congo, "Protection de la Nature".