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 Gauche’s 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.
Gauche’s 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 badge—neither 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 thing—no golden whale.
For some time Gauche’s 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 fingers—where 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 Littleby’s earthly remains. The Englishman lay there with his mouth open in a soundless scream—his 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 corpse’s 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 clue—and 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.
The golden emblem (at first, of course, Gauche had not known that it was an emblem; he had thought it was a bracelet charm or a monogrammed hairpin) could only have belonged to the murderer. Naturally, just to be sure, the commissioner had shown the whale to the junior manservant (what a lucky lad—the fifteenth of March was his day off, and that had saved his life!), but the manservant had never seen his lordship with the trinket before.
After that the entire ponderous mechanism of the police system had whirred into action, flywheels twirling and pinions spinning, as the minister and the prefect threw their very finest forces into solving “the crime of the century.” By the evening of the following day Gauche already knew that the three letters on the golden whale were not the initials of some prodigal hopelessly mired in debt, but the insignia of a newly established Franco-British shipping consortium. The whale proved to be the emblem of the miracle ship Leviathan, newly off the slipway at Bristol and currently being readied for its maiden voyage to India.
The newspapers had been trumpeting the praises of the gigantic steamship for more than a month. Now it transpired that on the eve of the Leviathan’s first sailing the London Mint had produced gold and silver commemorative badges: gold for the first-class passengers and senior officers of the ship, silver for second-class passengers and subalterns. Aboard this luxurious vessel, where the achievements of modern science were combined with an unprecedented degree of comfort, no provision at all was made for third class. The company guaranteed travelers a comprehensive service, making it unnecessary to take servants along on the voyage. “The shipping line’s attentive valets and tactful maids are on hand to ensure that you feel entirely at home on the Leviathan,” promised the advertisement printed in newspapers right across Europe. Those fortunate individuals who had booked a cabin for the first cruise from Southampton to Calcutta received a gold or silver whale with their ticket, according to their class—and a ticket could be booked in any major European port, from London to Constantinople.
Very well, then, having the emblem of the Leviathan was less useful than having the initials of its owner, but this only complicated matters slightly, the commissioner had reasoned. There was a strictly limited number of gold badges. All he had to do was to wait until the nineteenth of March (that was the day appointed for the triumphant first sailing), go to Southampton, board the steamer, and see which of the first-class passengers was missing a golden whale. Or else (this was more likely), which of the passengers who had laid out the money for a ticket failed to turn up for boarding. That would be papa Gauche’s client. Simple as potato soup.
Gauche thoroughly disliked traveling, but this time he couldn’t resist. He badly wanted to solve the Crime of the Century himself. Who could tell, they might just make him a superintendent at long last. He had only three years left to retirement. A third-class pension was one thing; a second-class pension was different altogether. The difference was one and a half thousand francs a year, and that kind of money didn’t grow on trees.
So he had taken the job on. He thought he would just nip across to Southampton and then, at worst, sail as far as Le Havre (the first stop), where there would be gendarmes and reporters lined up on the quayside. A big headline in the Revue Parisienne: “Crime of the Century Solved: Our Police Rise to the Occasion.” Or better yet: “Old Sleuth Gauche Pulls It Off!”
But ha! The first unpleasant surprise had been waiting for the commissioner at the shipping line office in Southampton, where he discovered that the infernally huge steamship had a hundred first-class cabins and ten senior officers. All the tickets had been sold: all hundred and thirty-two of them. And a gold badge had been issued with each one. Yes—a total of a hundred and forty-two suspects. But then, only one of them would have no badge, Gauche had reassured himself.
On the morning of the nineteenth of March, the commissioner, wrapped up against the damp wind in a warm woollen muffler, had been standing close to the gangway beside the captain, Mr. Josiah Cliff, and the first lieutenant, M. Charles Renier. They were greeting the passengers. The brass band played English and French marching tunes in turn, the crowd on the pier generated an excited buzz, and Gauche puffed away in a rising fury, biting down hard on his wholly blameless pipe. For, alas, due to the cold weather all the passengers were wearing raincoats, overcoats, greatcoats, or capotes. Just try figuring out who has a badge and who doesn’t! That was unpleasant surprise number two.
Everyone due to board the steamship in Southampton had arrived, indicating that the criminal must have shown up for the sailing despite the loss of the badge. Evidently he must think policemen were total idiots. Or was he hoping to lose himself in the immense crowd? Or perhaps he simply had no other choice?
In any case, one thing was clear: Gauche would have to go as far as Le Havre. He had been allocated the cabin reserved for honored guests of the shipping line.
Immediately after the ship had sailed a banquet was held in the first-class grand salon, an event the commissioner had especially high hopes for, since the invitations bore the instruction “Admission on presentation of a gold badge or first-class ticket.” Why would anyone bother to carry a ticket around when it was so much simpler to pin on your little gold leviathan?
At the banquet Gauche let his imagination run wild as he mentally frisked everyone present. He was even obliged to stick his nose into some ladies’ décolletés to check whether they had anything dangling in there on a gold chain, perhaps a whale, perhaps simply a pendant. How could he not check?
Everyone was drinking champagne, nibbling on various savory delicacies from silver trays, and dancing, but Gauche was hard at work, eliminating from his list those who had their badge in place. The men caused him the biggest problems. Many of the swine had attached the whale to their watch chains or even stuck it in their waistcoat pockets, and the commissioner was obliged to inquire after the exact time on eleven occasions.
Surprise number three was that all the officers had their badges in place, but no less than four passengers were wearing no emblem, including two of the female sex! The blow that had cracked open Lord Littleby’s skull like a nutshell was so powerful it could surely have been struck only by a man, and a man of exceptional strength at that. On the other hand, as a highly experienced specialist in criminal matters, the commissioner was well aware that in a fit of passion or hysterical excitement even the weakest of ladies was capable of performing genuine miracles. He had no need to look far for examples. Why, only last year a milliner from Neuilly, a frail little chit of a thing, had thrown her unfaithful lover out a fourth-floor window—and he had been a well-nourished rentier twice as fat and half as tall again as herself. So it would not do at all to eliminate women who happened to have no badge from the list of suspects. Although who had ever heard of a woman, especially a woman of good society, mastering the knack of administering injections like that?
With one thing and another, the investigation on board the Leviathan threatened to drag on, and so the commissioner had set about dealing with things in his customary thorough fashion. Captain Josiah Cliff was the only officer of the steamship who had been made privy to the secret investigation, and he had instructions from the management of the shipping company to afford the French guardian of the law every possible assistance. Gauche exploited this privilege quite unceremoniously by demanding that all individuals of interest to him be assigned to the same salon.
It should be explained at this point that, out of considerations of privacy and comfort (after all, the ship’s advertisement had claimed: “On board, you will discover the atmosphere of a fine old English country estate”), those individuals traveling first-class were not expected to take their meals in the vast dining hall along with the six hundred bearers of democratic silver whales, but were assigned to their own comfortable “salons,” each of which bore its own aristocratic title and looked like a high-class hotel: crystal chandeliers, stained oak and mahogany, velvet-upholstered chairs, gleaming silver tableware, prim waiters, and officious stewards. For his own purposes Commissioner Gauche had singled out the Windsor Salon, located on the upper deck in the very bow of the ship: Its three walls of continuous window afforded a magnificent view, so that even on overcast days there was no need to switch on the lamps. The velvet upholstery here was a fine shade of golden brown and the linen table napkins were adorned with the Windsor coat of arms.
Set around the oval table with its legs bolted to the floor (a precaution against any likelihood of severe pitching and rolling) were ten chairs with their tall backs carved in designs incorporating a motley assortment of gothic decorative flourishes. The commissioner liked the idea of everyone sitting around the same table, and he had ordered the steward not to set out the nameplates at random, but with strategic intent: He had seated the four passengers without badges directly opposite himself so that he could keep a close eye on those particular birds. It had not proved possible to seat the captain himself at the head of the table, as Gauche had planned. Mr. Josiah Cliff did not wish (as he himself had expressed it) “to have any part in this charade,” and had chosen to base himself in the York Salon, where the new viceroy of India was taking his meals with his wife and two generals of the Indian army. York was located in the prestigious stern, as far removed as possible from plague-stricken Windsor, where the head of the table was taken by first mate Charles Renier. The commissioner had taken an instant dislike to Renier, with that face bronzed by the sun and the wind, that honeyed way of speaking, that head of dark hair gleaming with brilliantine, that dyed mustache with its two spruce little curls. He was a buffoon, not a sailor.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin. Copyright © 2004 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.