The Clemenses – Samuel, better known the world over as Mark Twain, his wife Olivia, and daughter, Clara – arrived around seven the next morning, with The Rosetta keeping to its schedule from Colombo. Henry Baker was there to meet them, and quite on time, in a new brown sack coat that he took off minutes after reaching the Bori Bunder docks. Things always got warm quickly even if it was January. He handed the coat over to Abdul, warning him not to let it crease in any way. Abdul had been his manservant for almost as long as he, Henry, had been in India, and he learnt fast. Henry found his enthusiasm hard to take at times, but he always relented: Abdul was only 18 and looked even younger, tall for his age, and there was always a desperate earnestness in his dark eyes.

Now Henry pulled his watch out of his vest and checked the time yet again. He paced, heading to the quay’s very edge to look farther away, out to sea, before gingerly stepping back, scraping the damp off his knickerbockers, his eyes straying toward the fishermen in their small painted boats, unloading their wares on the docks.

The boats jostled against each other, and the sea, time and again, bubbled and brushed against the wood. The sunlight flashed silver against the nets, heavy and glistening, and the trapped fish in turn made tiny mirrors of light. A thousand and more mirrors rose and fell with the waves rolling up to the rocks before easing away. Henry blinked, feeling the cold damp of the morning on his face, and the fishermen flung their fish-laden nets over the rocky ledge. The womenfolk waited, wicker baskets against their hips. They vended the fish across the city, calling out their wares as they spread across different quarters of the city: Walkeswar, Colaba, and northward in the mill area of Parel and Sewree. The gulls circled and hovered overhead, dipping low, and moments later, soaring high, and the women swatted them away, in practised and habitual irritation. Shoo. Shoo. Jao. Henry heard their rhythmic imprecations, almost in unison. Two policemen descended the stony quay, their wooden sticks flapping against their knee-length shorts as they gestured to the fishermen. That meant the docks had to be cleared soon for the bigger ships to anchor. In the distance, to the east, Henry saw a first faint blob, and he wondered if that was The Rosetta bringing in the Clemenses.

“They will soon be away, sahib,” said Abdul, waving his umbrella all about him, swatting away flies. The sky looked clear, but it had rained the previous night, and Abdul liked to be prepared.

“Who?” asked Henry crossly, wondering if Abdul meant the fisherfolk, the fishy smell from their baskets, or the flies. For a pleasant minute or two, he had been thinking of Maya. The other morning, he had planned a carriage ride on the Apollo Bunder with its sparkling view of the morning sea, the dewy breeze on their faces, but news of the murder had put paid to his plans. He should have kept the newspaper firmly out of sight. A couple of pye-dogs came trotting up, their ears perked high as they surveyed the shore. The gulls squawked as they indignantly flew away, and the women sat on their haunches, carefully arranging their baskets of fish. Henry wondered at the kind of welcome the Clemenses were going to get.

“Never mind, Abdul. Just be careful you don’t let the smell get into my coat,” he said, half-jovially. Then more seriously, he explained, “Our guest is a writer, and there’s his family too. Maybe they will want to do something other than the usual stuff. Everyone does the parties, the visit to the Governor’s House and Elephanta Island. There must be other things to do, I am sure.”

Henry’s words petered off as a breeze came up, and he lifted a hasty hand to his head, but Abdul’s eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically. Maya had suggested an excursion way out of the city, in the Ghats leading to Poona. Something like that would speak to a writer’s imagination, she’d said at the time and Henry smiled at the memory.

Half an hour later the pier at the farthest end suddenly came to life. More policemen in their yellow turbans and blue uniforms came up, coolies, and dockworkers thronged that end, standing amidst crates and boxes, craning their necks southwestward from where the ship chugged in. Clouds of black smoke rose, spread against the blue sky, and the black hulk of the approaching object gradually took on a more definite shape. Two tugboats led the ship in, its siren blowing with a majesty that for moments silenced the cacophony on the pier. Passengers stood along the white railings waving to the crowds, acknowledging the cheers, as the ship came in slowly, ponderously.

Abdul helped Henry with his coat, running his hand quickly over it, smoothing out the creases, one last time. Henry took his hat off, his fingers sticky from his hair pomade, and stood smiling stiffly, trying to look as efficient and welcoming as possible. As the American Consul in Bombay – as he never failed to remind himself – he had to ensure the Clemenses had a pleasant stay in Bombay, and wherever else they travelled to in India. Mark Twain’s manager, Robert Smythe, who was still in Australia, unable to travel with them owing to some personal matters in Sydney, had mailed Henry their detailed itinerary. He wished now that he had it in his pocket. It would have given him something to talk about in the carriage ride to Watson’s Hotel where the Clemenses were staying.

Excerpted with permission from The Kidnapping of Mark Twain: A Bombay Mystery, Anuradha Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books.