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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—”
Copyright © 2016 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch