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“What a load of shit,” Commissaire Georges Dupin muttered.
The stench was appalling. He felt sick to his gut. He had been overtaken by a fit of nausea almost to the point of fainting. He had had to lean back against the wall to support himself; he wasn’t going to last much longer if he stayed here. He felt cold sweat running down his forehead. It was 5:32 A.M., but no longer night and noticeably cool. Dawn was creeping slowly across the sky. Dupin had been dragged from his bed by a phone call at 4:49 A.M., when it was still the middle of the night. He and Claire had only just left the Amiral shortly after 2:00 A.M.; they had been at one hell of a party to mark the beginning of the longest day of the year: the summer solstice. In Celtic they called it Alban Hevin. Brittany was naturally blessed with enthralling light, but at this time of year it became magical. The sun didn’t set until 10:30 in the evening, and yet long afterward a brilliant light lingered in the atmosphere; the horizon was clearly visible across the Atlantic, yet at the same time the brightest stars could already be seen. This “astronomical twilight,” as they called it, lasted almost until midnight before total darkness united sea and sky. There was so much light it almost made you drunk. Dupin loved these days. Really loved them.
The room, with its yellowish tiles reaching up to the ceiling, was cramped and cold in the harsh neon lights, with its tiny windows tilted open but not letting in anything like enough fresh air. Half a dozen dark gray containers as high as a man stood on rollers in two rows of three.
The young woman—in her midthirties, Dupin guessed—had lain in the container to the front on the left; a cleaner had found her. Two policemen had turned up here at the fish auction hall in Douarnenez harbor right away. Together with the crime scene team from Quimper, who had taken the body out of the container and laid it on the tiled floor before Dupin arrived.
It was a revolting spectacle even for the hardened observer. Dupin had never come across anything like it in his whole career. The body was covered in rotting fish, guts, stomachs, intestines, a mixture of all the more or less liquid waste that had been in the container. Even whole pieces of fish, tails, and bones stuck to the woman, to her hair, her hands, and—though there were only a few places where their original color could be made out—her light blue sweater, bright yellow oilskin pants, and black rubber boots. Her short, dark brown hair was tangled with sardine heads. Her face was a mess too. Fish scales glittered in the light, particularly macabre where one extremely large fish scale covered her left eye while her right eye was wide open. The slimy mess on her upper body had intermingled with the woman’s blood. A lot of blood. There was a four-to-five-centimeter cut across her lower throat.
“Dead as a dormouse,” said the wiry pathologist with red cheeks, shrugging. He didn’t look in the slightest like a comedian and didn’t seem in the slightest bothered by the stench. “What is there to say? The cause of death is no more a puzzle than the woman’s state of health. Somebody cut her throat, probably yesterday between eight P.M. and midnight, though I’ll spare you the reasoning behind that.” He glanced at Dupin and the two crime scene specialists. “If you have no objections we’ll take the young lady to the lab. And the barrel too. Maybe we’ll find something interesting.” There was a jovial tone to his voice. Dupin was overcome with another wave of nausea.
“Not a problem for us. We’re done. There’s nothing more to be added to the crime scene investigation for now.”
The chief forensic officer from Quimper, Dupin had been pleased to note, was away on holiday, and his job was being done by two assistants, both of whom had the same unbounded self-confidence as their lord and master. The shorter of the two took over: “We were able to take a number of fingerprints from the top of the container, where it opens—twenty or so different prints altogether I’d say, although most of them weren’t complete or were one on top of the other. Hard to say much more at present. Even though we will,” he hesitated a moment, “need to look more closely at the interior.”
Kadeg, one of Dupin’s two inspectors, who seemed fully awake and composed and stood too close to the corpse, cleared his throat. “We could do with a little bit more information. On the knife for example.” He had turned toward the pathologist and mimed for the experts: “I believe the blade must have been very sharp; the wound looks almost surgical.”
The pathologist wasn’t going to be impressed. “We’ll examine the wound carefully in due course. The state of the wound depends not only on the blade but also on the skill of the perpetrator, as well as the speed with which he made the cut. Someone who knows his knives can make almost any cut with any knife, even in a fight. Mind you, I would probably rule out a machete”—he clearly thought this really funny—“but any of the hundred, maybe two hundred knives carried by the fishermen who use this hall could have done it.”
“Just who might be carrying a knife with him,” the smaller forensics man said ironically, “isn’t a question you’re going to get very far with here. Everybody who lives by the sea, whether they fish, hunt, collect mussels, own a boat, or are looking for work—in other words virtually everyone who lives here—owns at least one good knife and knows how to use it.”
Kadeg looked as if he was about to make another objection, then dropped it and quickly changed the subject. “How often and when are the barrels emptied? Have you been able to find that out? There must be a regular schedule.”
He aimed the question at the rookie policeman from Douarnenez, who, along with his colleagues, had been the first to turn up and seemed a down-to-earth local.
“Twice a day, we already know that. The men who gut the fish sometimes work late into the night and so the barrels are emptied very early in the morning before the first fishing boats come in. And once again around three P.M. The cleaners who empty them were totally distraught and called in one of the warehouse staff, who reported the incident to us at the police station. Then he closed off the hall.”
“Without even glancing into the barrel himself to see if he might know the person?”
“There was only a leg visible.”
“What about a phone?” Kadeg asked. “Did you find a cell phone on the body?”
“Okay,” the pathologist said, obviously in a hurry. “Then let’s pack up the corpse and—”
“Boss,” Riwal, Dupin’s other inspector, interrupted. He was standing in the doorway of the little room, which was already too full. There was a woman behind him who looked remarkably similar to the dead woman, except that she was probably about fifty years old.
“Gaétane Gochat, the chief of the harbor and the auction hall here, she’s just turned up and—”
“Céline Kerkrom, that’s Céline Kerkrom.” The harbor chief had stopped in her tracks, staring at the body. It took a few moments before she got her voice back.
“She’s one of our coastal fisherwomen. She lives on the Île de Sein and usually brings her catch here to sell.”
Gaétane Gochat sounded completely unmoved, no trace of shock, horror, or sympathy, which, Dupin had learned, meant nothing whatsoever. Each person reacted totally differently when it came to sudden brutal or tragic events.
On his last case, in the Belon area, they had moved heaven and earth to find out who the murder victim was; here the identification of the deceased seemed remarkably simple.
“I need a café,” Dupin muttered. It was only the second sentence he had spoken since he arrived. “We have a few things to talk about. Come along with us, Madame Gochat. You too, Riwal!” He was in no state to hide the grumpy tone in his voice.
He suddenly tore himself away from the wall, walked past all of them without waiting for their reaction or noticing the puzzled, surprised expressions on their faces, and was out of the door. He needed coffee. And now. He needed to shake off the stupor, the infernal stench, and the exhaustion that meant he was seeing everything as if through a hazy veil. To put it in a nutshell: he needed to come to himself, to plunge back into reality, and quickly. Get his mind wide awake, clear, and sharp.
The commissaire made his way through the big halls to where he had on his way in spotted a stand with a little bar, and a large coffee machine and a couple of scuffed bar tables. Riwal and Gaétane Gochat had trouble keeping up with him.
Everyday professional life in the plain tiled fish market had resumed, paying little heed to the dramatic news which had obviously already done the rounds; things were busy. Fishermen and fish sellers, restaurant owners and other customers were going about their business. Hundreds of flat plastic boxes were spread around the big hall on the damp concrete floor, in garish colors: fire red, neon green, signal blue, bright orange, just a few in black or white. Dupin recognized the boxes from Concarneau; they were a standard item in all the fish warehouses and the chief utensil in all the auction houses. They contained heaps of ice, on top of which lay everything the fishermen had caught in their nets: vast quantities of fish and sea creatures in every shape, form, color, and size; every sort of exotic sea creature you could imagine in your wildest fantasy. Huge, prehistoric-looking monkfish with their jaws ripped open wide, shining mackerel, fierce-looking lobsters, grayish black squid squeezed together, masses of langoustines, different types of sole, top-quality examples of sea bass (a fish Dupin loved, primarily served as carpaccio or tartare), delicious red mullet everywhere, gigantic spider crabs. There were also fish and shellfish Dupin didn’t know the names of, as well as some he had never seen before, at least not knowingly, maybe already prepared on his plate, but not like this. He had to admit that as a good Frenchman his culinary interest went far beyond the zoological. In one box he came across a sadly confused-looking shark, in another next to it, a meter-long, almost completely round-bodied yet at the same time somewhat flat fish with a disproportionately large back fin. A sunfish, if Dupin’s memory served him well. It was only recently that Riwal had shown him one in the Concarneau fish hall. Brittany was a paradise in many ways, particularly for lovers of fish and seafood; nowhere were they better or fresher. That was why the adjective “breton” stood alongside the name of almost every fish dish in almost every starred French restaurant: Langoustines bretonnes, Saint-Pierre Breton—there was no higher praise.
The busiest part of the hall was the rear, where the auctions took place. Along the sides were half-open rooms where some of the fish were already being prepared. Men in white protective suits, with hairnets, white rubber boots, and blue gloves worked with large, long knives at stainless steel workbenches.
“Two petits cafés.” Dupin had reached the stand quickly, despite having to zigzag between the boxes. The old lady behind the counter gave him a suspicious look but placed two cardboard cups beneath the machine.
Dupin turned to the harbor chief, who was standing next to Riwal.
“Are you related to the deceased, madame?” The thought had occurred to Dupin because they looked so alike.
“Not at all,” said Gaétane Gochat dismissively. It seemed she had been asked the question more than once.
“Have you any idea what happened here?”
“Not in the slightest. Was she killed here in the auction hall? At what time was the murder?”
“Apparently between eight P.M. and midnight yesterday evening. Whether or not she was killed here is something we don’t know yet. How late were you here yesterday?”
“Yes, you, madame.”
“I think up until about nine thirty. I was in my office.”
“Whereabouts is your office, if you don’t mind me asking?”
She replied with an impassive face. “Directly next to the auction hall. That’s the administration center for the harbor.”
Madame Gochat was the prosaic type, one who concentrated on doing the things that needed to be done, speedily and rationally. She was a stocky person with presence, short brown hair, brown eyes, little worry lines around her eyes and lips; businesslike rather than stubborn. Dupin thought she could be feisty if it came to it. She wore jeans, a fluffy gray fleece, and the obligatory rubber boots.
“What sort of fishermen come here? Those from the big boats too?”
“The deep-sea trawlers come in around five in the morning, the ones that have been at sea for a couple of weeks; the local boats that have been out for a couple of days come in around midday; and then at about five in the afternoon we get the coastal fishermen who’ve set out at around four or five in the morning, while the sardine fishers have gone out the evening before. The auctions begin as soon as the boats have come in. We were very busy yesterday. It was the beginning of the holiday season; a few of the coastal fishermen were still here by the time I left.”
“Did you see Madame Kerkrom?”
The elderly lady behind the counter had set the two cafés down in front of Dupin. The expression on her face as she did so was hard to decipher.
“What about earlier?”
“About seven P.M., I think, I saw her briefly then. She was carrying a box into the hall.”
“Did you speak to her?”
“What were you yourself doing in the hall at that time?”
There was just a hint of testiness in Madame Gochat’s look.
“Every now and then I look and see if there’s my sort of guy.”
Dupin drank down his first café in one gulp. A proper café de bonne soeur, a “nun’s coffee,” as the Bretons called weak coffee. Torre, bull coffee, was what they called a strong one. For really bad coffee, undrinkable and disgusting, there were a multitude of names, serious Breton names: “Bardot piss,” which supposedly meant something like “mule piss,” or café sac’h, water squeezed through an old pair of stockings.
“You said Céline Kerkrom usually brought her catch here. What do you mean by that? How regular was she?”
“Almost every day, just as the auctions were starting. She specialized in lieu jaune—pollock—bass, and bream. Most of the time she fished with a line. She rarely used a net, as far as I know.”
“So yesterday she brought her catch here?”
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