PORT SAID TO ADEN
At Port Said another passenger boarded the Leviathan, occupying stateroom number eighteen, the last first-class cabin still vacant, and Gustave Gauches mood immediately improved. The newcomer looked highly promising: that self-assured and unhurried way of carrying himself, that inscrutable expression on the handsome face. At first glance he seemed quite young, but when he removed his bowler hat, the hair on his temples was unexpectedly gray. A curious specimen, the commissioner decided. It was clear straight off that he had character and what they call "a past." All in all, definitely a client for papa Gauche.
The passenger walked up the gangway, swinging his shoulder bag, while the porters sweated as they struggled under the weight of his ample baggage: expensive suitcases that squeaked, high-quality pigskin traveling bags, huge bundles of books, and even a folding tricycle (one large wheel, two small ones, and an array of gleaming metal tubes). Bringing up the rear came two poor devils lugging an imposing set of gymnastic weights.
Gauches heart, the heart of an old sleuth (as the commissioner himself was fond of testifying), had thrilled to the lure of the hunt when the newcomer proved to have no golden badgeneither on the silk lapel of his dandified summer coat, nor on his jacket, nor on his watch chain. Warmer now, very warm, thought Gauche, vigilantly scrutinizing the fop from beneath his bushy brows and puffing on his favorite clay pipe. But of course, why had he, old fool that he was, assumed the murderer would board the steamship at Southampton? The crime was committed on the fifteenth of March, and today was already the first of April. It would have been perfectly easy to reach Port Said while the Leviathan was rounding the western rim of Europe. And there you had it, everything fitted: the right kind of character for a client, plus a first-class ticket, plus the most important thingno golden whale.
For some time Gauches dreams had been haunted by that accursed badge with the abbreviated title of the Jasper-Artaud Partnership steamship company, and without exception his dreams had been uncommonly bad. Take the latest, for instance.
The commissioner was out boating with Mme. Gauche in the Bois de Boulogne. The sun was shining high in the sky and the birds were twittering in the trees. Suddenly a gigantic golden face with inanely goggling eyes loomed up over the treetops, opened cavernous jaws that could have accommodated the Arc de Triomphe with ease, and began sucking in the pond. Gauche broke into a sweat and laid on the oars. Meanwhile it transpired that events were not taking place in the park at all, but in the middle of a boundless ocean. The oars buckled like straws, Mme. Gauche was jabbing him painfully in the back with her umbrella, and an immense gleaming carcass blotted out the entire horizon. When it spouted a fountain that eclipsed half the sky, the commissioner woke up and began fumbling around on his bedside table with trembling fingerswhere were his pipe and those matches?
Gauche had first laid eyes on the golden whale at the Rue de Grenelle, when he was examining Lord Littlebys earthly remains. The Englishman lay there with his mouth open in a soundless screamhis false teeth had come halfway out and his forehead was a bloody soufflé. Gauche squatted down: He thought he had caught a glimpse of gold glinting between the corpses fingers. Taking a closer look, he chortled in delight. Here was a stroke of uncommonly good luck, the kind that occurred only in crime novels. The helpful corpse had literally handed the investigation an important clueand not even on a plate, but in the palm of its hand. There you are, Gustave, take it. And may you die of shame if you dare let the person who smashed my head open get away, you old numskull.
Excerpted from Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin Copyright© 2004 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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