ST. ANDREW’S CROSS

By J. T. Seate



Atchison’s breathing was emphysematous. “I’m not going to apologize for calling on you once more, Inspector.”

“Nor did I expect you to,” Basham responded.

“We have this situation you see…”

Basham waited.

“You’ll be happy to know it has nothing to do with the last time you came to London.”

“You mean the fourth and final Ladies Knitting Society husband has not met his eternal reward?”

“I have no idea what Mr. Morrissey is up to these days. Still fleeing like a mouse at his own shadow, I would imagine.”

Basham again waited.

“No, my friend. This situation involves a death so unnatural I wanted your opinion and expertise.”

“No death is natural,” Basham said. “Details, please.”

“The body of a young man was found just beyond London proper along the highway to Canterbury. He was nailed upside down to a Crux Decussata, also called St. Andrew’s cross and without so much as a shroud to cover his nakedness, which was all the more shocking to the Anglican sisters who first discovered him. The murder has all the markings of being done by a person or persons with a religious bent of some sort, which I’m sure you have already deduced.”

“Quite so.”

“But there is something more. The body was not fresh. We’ve determined it to have been deceased for perhaps six months.”

Basham eyebrows knitted. “It must have been horribly emaciated.”

“That’s what makes the situation all the more baffling. It had been treated to a partially preserved state, at least the layer of surface skin. We were unable to determine the state of decay until the man was autopsied. His internal organs had previously been removed. We’ve had no reports of grave robbing or a missing medical school cadaver, and the body had not been embalmed.”

“And you were of the opinion that I, having been involved with the disinterred remains of one Mary Rose Singleton and her very much alive protector, Jeremy Musgrove, might provide insight into this latest ghoul’s foul act.” Basham tugged at one end of his mustache, now completely gray, and then said with undisturbed equanimity, “I don’t have a clue, I’m afraid. However, it is intriguing, Atchison. I assume the cross still stands by the roadside.”

“I’m afraid not. The Anglican church insisted we take it down. The configuration of a St. Andrew’s cross, and X shape, did not send a positive message to passersby, but we have it in the evidence yard, along with the unfortunate man’s body in an ice locker.”

 

* * *

 

When Basham was a lad, he’d pinched a shilling from his father’s bureau to pay his way into a carnival. He’d been told of the monstrosities at the Amazing Wonders of the World sideshow. There was the Elephant Woman who had grotesquely swollen hands and feet that resembled hams. There was a Lizard Boy with green scales from head to toe wearing what resembled a baby’s diaper. There was a Birdman from Borneo with frizzy hair and a beak who squawked irritatingly. And finally, there was a deformed baby in a large jar. The creature had one head, but two sets of arms and legs.

A young Basham was bright enough to see the exhibits for what they were – frauds. The Elephant Woman was just an obese, lardy unfortunate, nothing resembling John Merrick from more current times. The Lizard Boy’s scales looked like paint. The Birdman’s absurd beak was made of plaster. At least one set of the baby’s arms and legs looked like parts from a doll. Basham smiled at the memory of the presentations that were no more substantive than soap-bubbles. Crime detection was much like the exhibits at the sideshow. Now, in 1896 as then, one had to strip away the false masks to find the truth. He reflected on these falsities while picturing a dead man on a cross.  

Most murderers are an unhappy lot, but when one puts his handiwork on display, it might reveal self-righteousness or even pride. Basham looked at the cross. There was no craftsmanship in the work, simply two pine boards nailed together to form an X. The nails that pinned the hands and feet of the victim had been removed. Basham stooped to one knee to study the stains, slightly groaning with the effort of bending. He determined the man had been attached post mortem due to the minimal rusty spots of dried blood surrounding each nail hole. Unlike St. Andrew, he had fallen short of martyrdom, but at least the victim had been spared the torture of the limbs.

Although the old thrill of discovery titillated, such acts had long since lost their ability to shock or amaze Basham. He still wondered, as he so often had, what the point of evolution was in the face of mankind’s cruelty. His mind then turned to the conundrum of a person murdered and then nailed to a cross, the body remaining attached to the cross and preserved for half a year before being displayed. He had read about the incredible funerary tour of The United States President Lincoln. His face and hands needed to be touched up several times for presentation before journey’s end. This current degradation had to be the work of someone with access to chemicals necessary for preservation.

Before Basham’s arrival in London, a drawing of the dead man’s face was circulated where possible. There had been no identification, nor leads up to this point. The only place to start was with the corpus delecti who would deteriorate rapidly now after being exposed to the elements, in or out of the ice house.

Basham examined the bloodstains on the nails. He requested the use of a magnifying glass to attentively peruse the body and found two irregularities. One ear was pieced and a small scar rested below the left nipple – an X. He examined the body further and found, hidden underneath his hairline, a round hole at the base of the man’s skull – the death blow. Completing his examination, Basham strolled slowly to the Royal Library, allowing his unconscious to sort out clues his initial examination might have missed. He hoped it wouldn’t take hours or even days of research to find a religion, or an order, or cult that could shed light on the body mark.

As it turned out, he spent a weekend plowing through manuscripts and dusty records, but it provided interludes to walk London’s familiar streets. With creaking joints, bursitis and all, he sauntered to and from the places he needed to be, preferring to put up with the discomfort rather than to hail a hansom. On one occasion, he walked past a small city park. The wind blew a child’s pink cup down the street. He listened to its tinny little impacts as it clattered along. The sound was as forlorn as the feeling that came over him when he doubted his ability at crime solving.

On the brighter side, new shops offering dry-goods, groceries, and toys, all with immense panes of plate-glass stood along the thoroughfares of the city’s streets astir with customers, a sign of vital commerce. Civilization was not entirely given over to the unwholesome acts of thieves and murderers, he happily observed. He considered purchasing a cane in one of the shops, but rejected the idea, not wanting to hasten the appearance of a decline in life.

On Monday, Basham came across something resembling a lead. There was an esoteric religious order that had, like the Anglicans years earlier, broken away from Catholicism. They called themselves the Order of St. Andrew. By aligning the order’s history with grants to such establishments, Basham found a location of an active monastery. It was beyond London at the time of construction, but had since been engulfed by the city’s ever expanding boundaries. His research had further revealed the ritual of carving an X in the skin of the followers, usually near the heart.

Ordinarily, Basham would have informed Atchison of his intention to visit the monastery, but not knowing whether the dead man was a currant resident, a former one, or had no connection at all, he wanted to make his visit unofficial and off the record for the time being.

Though built of mortar and stone, the church was no great edifice with soaring spires, yet impressive in its own way. It reminded Basham of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables with its peaked roofs facing in all directions. Rather than seek entrance through the main double-doors, he shuffled toward an outer building behind the church where he saw a pile of lumber and knew any needed carpentry work would start there. Boards of a proper length to crucify an unfortunate victim lay in a stack.

Suddenly, a hand rested on Basham’s shoulder. If humanly possible, he would have levitated from surprise.

“May I be of service?”

Basham turned to see a man wearing a brown robe, a symbol of the brotherhood. They were a stealthy lot, these holy men.

“I’m Brother Lawrence. What are you looking for?”

Basham felt obligated to display his Scotland Yard badge which he’d never relinquished. “I’m wondering if I might have a word with your man who keeps the place in order. That is, do you have a man who does the woodcutting, that sort of thing?”

“That would be our workman. A moody chap, but reliable enough.

“May I speak with him?”

“Edward is beneath the earth at present.”

“You don’t mean…?”

The brother showed a slight grin. “Heavens no. He’s checking the church’s underground beams and the integrity of the sewage system. The brothers are happy to have Edward for such work, I assure you.” A pause as suspicion crept into his voice. “Is he in some kind of trouble?”

“No, no. We have a deceased personage who claimed to have a relative employed here. I’m attempting to find that person and notify him that a sum of money may be coming to him.”

This was a ploy Basham had used before. Most people, even religious ones, were happy to assist in the discovery of financial windfalls. “And land as well,” Basham added.

“We’ve been good to Edward, provided him with a livelihood after some trouble in his past. I’m happy to know you’re not on some distasteful mission.”

“Funny isn’t it, how a man might despise, or even hate his own relatives.” Given the need to playact, Basham was rather enjoying himself. “But when the Reaper appears at the doorstep, the strong instinct toward ones’ progeny seems to trump all issues. Whatever the provocation or inducement, men rarely bequeath property away from their own blood.”

“Allow me to take you to Edward.”

“Perhaps you should tell me of this trouble. I would hate to think there was something in this Edward’s past that might negate an inheritance, if he is our man.”

“Just a trifle with one of the brothers. In any religious order, there are bound to be some who find any activity outside their own strict vows disconcerting.”

Tiring of this bogus exchange, Basham nodded as if he understood for he wanted to get on with it. Further, he convinced the brother to allow him to go down the steps that led beneath the main building to chat with Edward alone. Basham emphasized the need for privacy with such delicate matters as death and inheritance.          

The area below ground was like a medieval tomb, the light provided by burning torches. Huge oak beams supported the structure while cave-like arched dugouts provided room for storage. He could see the glint of glass. Wine bottles, he guessed.

Basham followed a grating sound and came upon the workman who was busy shoveling small stones to bolster a corner of an arch. The inspector made enough noise so as not to surprise the man as Brother Lawrence had surprised him. Edward turned. Through the gloom, Basham noted Edward to be a relatively young and handsome man, about the age of the dead man. He was bare to the waist. His torso and arms glistened with sweat from his labors even though the chamber was cool. 

Basham spoke first. “I need a moment of your time, Edward. My name is Basham. I’m inquiring about one of the brothers from the monastery.”

Edward knit his brows at first, but then his face became benign.

“It’s my understanding that you fashion from wood what is needed for the chur – ”

“It’s Brother Ignacio you’re asking about,” Edward said without hesitation.

Basham had no inkling if Brother Ignacio was the corpse hanging from the cross along the highway, but something had nagged at him from the time he’d seen the unused pile of lumber. He had learned to allow anyone who chose to offer information have the stage. “Yes, Brother Ignacio.”

After the experience with Mr. Henniker during his previous visit to London, Basham was glad to see Edward set the shovel aside. For the first time, he noticed an open bottle of wine setting on a dusty crate. Edward sat on the box next to the bottle. “Would you like a taste from the cellar’s own reserves?” he asked the retired inspector.

Exhaustion invaded Basham’s every breath. What he would have liked was to be home in his own bed, but he knew an intriguing story was about to unfold and he needed to hear it. “No thank you, kind sir, but you need to tell me about Brother Ignacio, from the beginning.”

Edward grinned in a rather macabre fashion, and took a long, lingering pull on the wine bottles contents. “It’s dry work down here. The brothers never minded me helping myself to a bottle now and then. All except for Brother Ignacio.”

In this setting, with the torchlight casting strange shadows on the two men and the placid walls, it seemed a setting from ancient times in a place filled with eons of sepulchral secrets. “Please continue,” Basham prompted.   

“He was different from the rest, my overseer. Made sure my work was done good and proper. Told the brothers he would handle me with a firm hand, make sure there wasn’t any trouble for them or me.”

Basham wanted to question this past, but thought whatever had happened would be made known eventually.

“One day, he said to me, ‘You know I can replace you easily enough. I’ve given you this opportunity out of the goodness of my heart and you repay me with refusals. I’ll be finding someone else. You may teach them what must be done then find yourself some other way to keep yourself from the streets. Begging your pardon, sir,’ I says, ‘but I’m happy ’ere and am good at what I do. I know masonry and carpentry. Haven’t I done everything the monastery has asked?’ The wretch snorted scornfully and says, ‘A trained monkey could accomplish these tasks. It’s the favors I’ve ask of you that keep you here, but I now think the church has provided for you long enough.’ He grinned cruelly that day, and seeing my distress, he opened his robe, showing himself to me, mocking me. That was the final straw. I knew then I’d already been replaced with someone younger perhaps, someone for him to be with in the shadows. The fear of losing what I had turned from desolation to anger in no more time than it took to pick up my shovel. I swung the thing at the back of his head with all my might.” The twitching grin and moist eyes revealed the agitation brought about by the account.

“He yowled from the impact like a child who had been pinched, but he didn’t fall. His hand quickly reached for the injured side of his head. Blood leaked between his fingers. As he staggered unsteadily toward the door, I picked up a length of iron and shoved it into the back of his neck. He fell that time and toppled onto the floor. I had some difficulty extracting the weapon, but this man could no longer threaten to take away my duties or demand favors ever again.” Edward took pause and another swig from the bottle. “I hid him in one of the archways behind empty wine crates. The swine the brothers keep for slaughter quite enjoyed his innards. I was in charge for a change, and the company of his flesh without the insults was a satisfactory compromise, quite lovely, actually.”

The last remark hinted of a lover’s quarrel turned deadly, of a talisman to which Edward owed obedience. How hideously sordid, yet fascinating was the story. Basham trained his eyes on the figure, but with care, knowing the knowledge that had been shared could take a sudden and deadly turn, thinking again of the distraught Mr. Henniker. “Didn’t Brother Lawrence or any of the others suspect…?”

Edward seemed to brood. “They never speak of personal things. Brother Ignacio was a strange sort. I never knew if I was the only one, but given his interests, I believe they wouldn’t have been surprised if he had forsaken the church and left to joining some roving band of circus performers, or something equally alien to the order’s vows. Of course, I knew better, but no one ever asked my opinion even though he was my overseer.” Edward hung his head as if feeling some remorse. “I’m not a man without feelings. A brute he could be, but a religious man, nonetheless, with the mark of his beliefs. I decided it was proper to give him the crucifixion he and his mates worship and seem to pine for. Transfixed with suffering are the lot of them. He was much more pleasant in death and after some time, I grew rather fond of the quiet, peaceful man he had become.”

Edward’s comment about a circus recalled to mind the Amazing Wonders of the World from all those years ago, the memory almost as distant and unreal as the ogre in a child’s storybook. The one sideshow Basham had believed to be real rather than fraudulent was the man who pierced himself with nails. “Why in heaven’s name did you place Ignacio along the road after all this time rather than bury him?”

“That one’s easy, Govn’r. I could have kept him here forever, I suppose, but his advancing condition made him less pleasurable. The end result was easy enough to accomplish on a dark night with my supplies and my wagon. He once told me he would rather be a beggar without clothes alongside a road than to be no more enlightened than I. His beliefs such as they were, I granted his wish, what the brotherhood professes to worship most of all, the suffering of their patron saint – martyrdom.”

Confession was good for the soul, Basham had always heard and he believed it.

Edward’s eyes seemed those of a long lost friend, one who had told Basham of the most personal event. “You didn’t confide in one of the other – ”

Then the man began to wail. His pain echoed in the chamber like a haunting spectre. “You can’t understand the mix of feelings.”

“Ambivalent.” Basham understood.

“The brothers will be disappointed in me,” Edward added as an epilogue.

More disappointed in the knowledge that one in their employ was not about to inherit some form of treasure, Basham mused. Every generation produced good and evil fruit, so it must be true that every organization did the same. There is a certain perversity in the fabric of the world. In this instance, the living and the dead had been woven together into a bizarre tapestry. Basham had expected the case to involve a secret society of some sort, but it amounted to something more personal, the threat of losing a job mingled with some subterranean guilt between the knowledge of one man to another. Modern psychology would certainly find an appropriate label for the circumstance.

 

* * *

 

Basham returned to London with the information needed to resolve yet another mysterious incident involving dead bodies. Religions could have such an inflexible view of penance and sacrifice, each contending for its share of human flesh. Better off to be a pantheist, he believed.   

After hearing the man’s confession, Atchison said to Basham, “You’ve solved another one, old fellow.”

“I solved nothing. I’d uttered little more than my name when his tale tumbled forth.”

“You have that effect on people.”

“The man was prepared to confess his crime at the drop of a hat, as quickly as he displayed his secret along the roadside. He surely must have known it would lead back to him. After six months of reflection, all the while tending and treating the corpse in a spectacular way, I believe he wanted to be caught, his conscience overwhelming him”

Basham paused for a moment and gazed at the map of London on a wall of the station house. “The brothers in residence were a formidable sight as Edward came peaceably along without saying another word. They reminded me of a rugby team in their brown frocks led by the craggy faced Brother Lawrence. ‘On to the field of green, lads. No game to be found here except for a game of prayer for the unlovely truth of the human soul,’ I almost said.” Basham quickly recovered from what nearly became a smirk. “I’ll leave it to your men to inform the monastery of the confession and arrest. I am done in.”

“Still, your research uncovered him, Atchison said following Basham’s soliloquy. “You’re too modest, Inspector. Your mind is still razor sharp, and I’ll even skip the sermon about you going it alone, no pun intended. Few things are as powerful as revenge. The first blow, and then the next, and the next. The raw, yearning tide of blood can be intoxicating, I imagine.”

“Those who seek revenge must believe they are achieving justice, just as we find justice in solving crimes – justice within the legal framework.” Philosophize as Basham might,
punishment was about getting even, as powerful and potent as eroticism. He recalled a statement from Hawthorne’s novel: What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart.

As Basham packed for his return to the country, Atchison attempted another pun that was mildly amusing, and then spoke with seriousness. “Why don’t you move back to the city? Surely, your undiminished talents would be welcome, by me at least, and there are no shortages of cases which, as you have seen, get more bizarre with each year that passes. Who can say what is ahead with the new century upon us.”

Atchison hit a nerve. Basham’s face remained grave, but deep within his dark eyes, something stirred. In the village, the sun would rise tomorrow with the same calm as innumerable yesterdays, and as it would for all the tomorrows until his final day arrived. Did he truly prefer to sit out these remaining days in solitude while the rest of the world grew and fought out its battles with one kind of necessity or another?

It was useless to remain in the village he’d called home for eight years. He’d been reacquainted with London’s sounds – the lapping of the water against the banks of the Thames, the creaking rise of Tower Bridge to allow the passage of tall ships, the eternal passing of time faithfully announced by Big Ben, touchstones between the past and present. Scenes of passion, humor, and pathos could be found as easily here as anyplace. His walks had exorcised any lingering gloom about the city.

Whether he was asked to consult on future cases wasn’t important. His place was back in London with its woes and rewards. Basham unpacked and made arrangements for the lease of a small flat near Yard headquarters. His possessions, he would leave in the village house in case the absence of earth-smells and clear horizons overtook him. At this stage in life, he had earned the prerogative to change directions on short notice, just as the embattled workman, Edward, had done.




J. T. Seate is author of the popular Inspector Basham stories. Four previous Inspector Basham stories have been published online at omdb! — "Turn About" (November, 2012), "Letting Off Some Steam" (June, 2013), "The Case of the Open Grave" (October, 2013), and "Basham's Theory" (April, 2014). Three non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — "Mask" (March, 2013), "Montezuma's Revenge" (January, 2013), and "The Constant Reader" (April, 2013).

The author's other publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs.

Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.


Copyright 2014 J. T. Seate . All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

Return to Fiction.

Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.