CAT AND MOUSE


By J. T. Seate

Within the sanctum of his London flat, Basham watched a hansom pass along the street. The top of the cab glistened with moisture above its splashing wheels. The driver bent low beneath his water-proof coverlet pulled over his hat and shoulders — a typical late afternoon shower. Basham didn’t fuss about the weather; he merely observed it, happy to be resettled in the city. He marveled at how all conditions of life could be seen within a few blocks of a metropolis. At one end stood a district full of people in fashionable apparel with a lady’s hat shop displaying the latest fashions, many of the hats sprouting brightly colored feathers. He wondered about the poor birds that sacrificed their plumage over such nonsense.

At the other end of a given street, forlorn figures who seemed to have crept out of a subterranean sewer, almost indistinctive from their dreary surroundings meandered about, looking for their next meal or the next drink. The great current of human life, Basham pondered. Here but for the grace of education and training, go I.

What both ends had in common were churches with their priests or ministers followed by a coterie of disciples. Some prayed for more. Others prayed for anything.

As the horse-drawn vehicle disappeared from view, Basham’s loitering moment was interrupted by a tug at the cuff of his trousers. After all these years of living alone, he had taken in an orphan, a Scottish Terrier as black as night and an feisty as a precocious child. An elderly woman in his neighborhood, Bobbin’s former owner, had passed on a fortnight ago.

Although Basham had most certainly used a yardstick to measure the level of sanity any given human might possess, he’d never used it to measure happiness. He had memories of elation and depression, and everything in between, but those reactions belonged as much to the world of chemistry and biology as to one’s humanity, he believed. Feelings were ever present, yet difficult to label. His personal ache of solitude was something he’d never acknowledged, but even in this short time, Basham and the canine had made an emotional connection. They had taken to one another like cream and kippers.

With a friendly pat on Bobbins’s head, Basham took in his recently occupied surroundings. His days of living in a little village and partaking in its rural affairs were now past. At first, the new London flat had been drearily Dickensian from neglect. Even with the sale of the cottage, it was the best he could do on a retired official’s pension. But it was cheery enough with a new layer of whitewash and his personal effects surrounding him. He shuffled over to a sidebar supporting a selection of spirits.

For reasons known only to a power beyond that of mortal man, Basham’s mind wandered to a story he’d heard during his soldering days in the Crimea. In some part of Southeast Asia, there had been a coup against the country’s monarchy. There was an inconvenient law against spilling royal blood, so the revolutionaries sewed the princes into red velvet sacks and let them starve to death, a bloodless coup.

A tapping of Basham’s doorknocker suddenly shattered his reverie. Bobbins’s coat bristled and he growled. It was the first time his new master had seen a sign of aggression in the animal. The view from Basham’s window did not provide line of sight to his entrance, so he asked the dog, “What do you think, Bobbins? Someone come to do us harm, or merely a peddler? Promise not to take him apart.”

As Basham walked to the door, a curious certainty fell across him which went beyond intuition into the realm of precognition. He would have wagered his pension that the person on the other side of the door had something to do with a former case.

As it happened, a woman stood on Basham’s stoop. The face was familiar, but he could not quite place it. She carried no display of merchandise or portfolio of purchasable items, nothing but a small purse and parasol to protect from the rain. “Good afternoon, Inspector,” she said. “May I come in?”

Then it hit him. It had been over a year’s time, but it was unmistakably Polly Bronson, the prostitute who had provided the offhand remark that lead Basham to a murderer. She was more striking now than when they had met in the whorehouse. Her once golden-red locks had returned to a natural shade of brown, pulled back into a bun beneath a jaunty hat, flattering her emerald eyes and delicate nose, all earmarks of a woman who no longer sold herself.

“By all means.” Except for Detective Atchison and the aforementioned peddlers, she was his first visitor.

As she entered, the little dog backed a few steps away from the two humans. A look of surprise crossed the woman’s face. “Bobbins!” she said with glee. “I wondered who had taken you.”

“You know this little beast?” Basham said, foolishly stating the obvious, sounding more like an investigator than he meant to.

“Old Miss Dobbins’s dog. Dobbins and Bobbins. Wasn’t that cute?”

Basham threw the woman a speculative look with one brow cocked, vowing not to utter another statement as foolish as his last. Polly went to one knee hidden inside the layers of her dress and clapped her hands for the dog to come to her. With that, Bobbin’s tail began to wag, and with a yip, his paws clicked between throw rugs as he came to Polly.

Basham couldn’t hold his tongue, his legendary medieval stoicism failing him in the presence of this attractive visitor. “Do I owe this unanticipated visit to your search for Miss Dobbins’s dog, Polly?”

The woman smiled. “So, you do remember me. No, not to find little Bobbins,” she said while playing with the dog. “But your having him must be an omen.”

“I don’t believe in omens, my dear,” he lied.

“That’s unfortunate. I’ve come about something weightier, I’m afraid.” Polly rose with one final rustling of the hair between Bobbin’s ears. “But first, would you consider letting me have this little imp?”

“Actually, I have grown rather fond of him.”

“Oh well. Felicia has provided me with enough, I suppose. Given a little more time, you would have been welcome to more than her dog,” Polly added, with a bit of coquettishness.

Basham harrumphed, but her epithet encouraged a twinkle in his eye. He offered Polly a seat and a glass of sherry. She accepted both. He directed her to a comfortable setae while he sat across from her in a wingback chair studded with brass tacks, his favorite. Bobbins positioned himself on a rug between them, remaining the center of attention.

After a lingering sip from her glass, Polly’s story began to unfold. “Felicia Dobbins helped change my life,” she began. “After my poor mother died, I vowed to leave Madam Frazzeta’s employ once and for all. Felicia gave me a job in her flower shop. Even though she had been in the trade herself years before, she’d saved enough to purchase the little shop and start anew, respectable-like. She suffered for employing me, the gossip and all, but she stuck by me. When she passed, I was shocked to discover she had left both the shop and her dwelling to me.”

No more catering to those who could afford her pleasures, mostly middle-aged men wearing gold watch fobs and diamond stickpins, their most prominent feature being their glutinous mid-sections that followed behind fashionable canes, making their way into bedchambers. Polly had become more than a ribald distraction from the fashionable cotillions these gentlemen attended with their frilly wives. Basham certainly was not opposed to those who could pull themselves up the rungs of the societal ladder. Lucky woman, he thought and then offered, “So, we are neighbors.”

Polly met his words with a wry smile over some memory. “Felicia had her eye on you, Inspector. She commented about the man who had recently moved near her. ‘A dashing gentleman just a few doors down,’ she said to me, and just the right age.”

A man is no stronger than his vanity, but Basham had never thought himself dashing, no matter what the age.

“When she mentioned your name, I remembered you right away, how you had paid me for my time only at Madam Frazzeta’s. And I saw you again in court during the trial of Marcia Henniker’s father. I could tell you weren’t gloating about the arrest. Just a citizen doing his duty.”

Basham remembered that day. In the courtroom, there is seldom truth, only presentation, pure theater, but it was necessary to prosecute and sentence Joshua Henniker, the father of Polly’s fellow cortisone, Marcia Henniker, for the murder of Jonathan Pippin. Exacting his vigilante justice on Pippin had not saved the man, for he’d been sentenced to life in prison. “Have you stayed in touch with Henniker?” Basham chanced.

“He’s dead. Hung himself in prison. But that matter is not what has brought me to your doorstep, Edgar. It’s my life that concerns me. I’m being followed by what seems to be a phantom.”

“Why don’t you go to the police?”

“You know what I…was. Them at the station house might want…well…you know. Like many of the patrons to Madam Frazzeta’s, they sometimes choose to threaten with a knife as well as their…. I’ve given up that life, but I fear this thing that lurks in the shadows is perhaps someone who holds a grudge against Felicia or myself, or, God forbid, an old customer.”

“Shadows can make life more mysterious than it really is.”

“Truly spoken, but I’m not just seeing shadows.”

“Is that why you call this pursuer a phantom?”

“Have you ever caught something just out of the corner of your eye, and when you look, it’s gone? I would welcome a ghostly spirit from the netherworld over most of the humans I’ve had the displeasure of doing business with. I’m sure of my ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy, and the feeling of watching eyes are not imagined and all too human, yet the word ‘phantom’ seems somehow appropriate for this creature.”

Basham knew the sensation. Further, he was sympathetic to her dilemma.

“If you could catch this phantom, find out what he’s up to. Maybe scramble his brains like they were eggs in a hotel kitchen.” Polly may have become acceptable to some higher strata of society, but her earthy metaphors still ruled her speech. “Don’t think I would consider taking your services out in trade, as I know you to be a gentleman in all respects. I have enough from the shop to offer you whatever fee you might require.”

Basham was intrigued. “Save your money for now, Miss Bronson.”

“Please call me Polly. I haven’t become all snooty because I own a simple shop.”

“I’ll see what I can uncover. I would like an accounting of your daily activities to find out what might give me the best advantage to identify your pursuer.”

“Why are you interested in such details?”

“Ahh, that’s where the devil is, my dear.”

“Certainly, Mr. Basham. What a ray of sunshine you are.”

Too patronizing, Basham thought. Bobbins produced a small woof as he repositioned himself. The two humans looked at him for a moment until Polly giggled. “May we share another glass of sherry while I bare my soul to you further?”

 

***

 

There are moments in life when courage must assert itself. Basham could set aside the notes concerning a recent suspicious death Detective Atchison had provided for awhile. Polly’s predicament sounded like the old story: The intoxication of a hunter and the terror of his prey. That was the game predators played, one of cat-and-mouse. Basham liked playing the cat when a situation called for it. He further liked an opportunity to resurrect a tactic he hadn’t employed for years—a disguise.

A few days following Polly’s visit, he carefully applied a gray beard and powdered his eyebrows. He donned a rather out-of-date tweed suit he’d not been able to part with. One final touch—a monocle for a hint of panache. It was possible he was known to Polly’s nemesis, or been seen at his front door when she visited, so the charade of a disguise seemed appropriate. One could sometimes use illusion to get to the truth. Further, it played to Basham’s vanity for a certain triumph came with a successful masquerade. 

The flower shop resided on a nondescript East End thoroughfare. It was actually a bright spot on a street that was otherwise a bit grimy and grim. Shortly after the shop opened, Basham stopped in and purchased a small bouquet. “Flowers for the success of our little mystery, Madam,” he then said to Polly.

She looked at him queerly and blinked before recognition set in. “My word!” she exclaimed. “It is you. Edgar, why—”

“Shhhh. Wouldn’t want to be found out. Any of your customers could be the person we’re looking for.”

“Oh, but of course.”

“I will be in touch.”

“Very well,” Polly said as Basham went out the door to the tingle of the little bell overhead.

He gave the bouquet Polly had rung up to a woman with a young girl, receiving surprised smiles in return. The area around the shop had no trolley tracks for clanging cable cars, nor was there a cluster of hacks and hansoms for hire, so it was easy enough to find a location from which he could peruse the daily Times and observe the flower shop. What Polly didn’t know was that Basham had used a few days to check on her history. The facts revealed no particular variance from what she had shared in his flat, but a check of her former abode before moving into Felicia’s residence introduced one glaring exception—the existence of one Ralph Lamont, a man who had once been in the employ of Madam Frazzeta and was now living with Polly. Her dalliance with Lamont might not be relevant, but her claim of having severed all ties with her former life was fraudulent.

Basham’s overriding interest in Polly was not for the reason she thought, merely to help rid a poor woman trying to make good from some nuisance, a story sweetened with flattery. It was something else entirely. It was the fact that the file coaxingly given to Basham by Detective Atchison was ironically none other than the suspicious death of Felicia Dobbins. The woman who had signed her worldly possessions over to Polly Bronson, with the exception of Bobbins, was being investigated by the very man she had asked to find some shadowy phantom. Polly couldn’t have known that, and the irony almost convinced Basham there was a supreme power looking over mankind’s meager dealings.

Basham knew Polly would have to inform her accomplice of his disguise, so he merely watched and waited for such an encounter. The game of cat-and-mouse usually rewarded the feline, not the rodent. The liaison occurred at midday when Polly took a man who’d entered the shop onto the sidewalk away from customers and appeared to be speaking in whispers. The man looked around. Basham held the newspaper in front of his face suspiciously for he wanted to be spotted. Polly returned to her shop. The stranger fit the description Basham had been given of Polly’s current lover, Ralph Lamont.

After removing an enigmatic expression and, no doubt, thinking about how he should be responding, the man sauntered down the street trying to appear nonchalant, succeeding only in looking more guilty. Rank amateurs, Basham thought.                        

It was dusk when Polly locked the door of her flower shop. She had gone no further than a block before Basham began to follow. By the second block, Basham sensed he was being followed as well, as he knew he would be. He felt something akin to what Polly described, a stare growing more intense, becoming shark-like, and coming out of the shadows, as it were.

At a corner, Basham stepped against a wall. He didn’t have to wait long. When he heard the man’s footsteps about to reach the corner, he thrust his cane onto the sidewalk. Caught by surprise, the man tripped and fell to the ground.

Basham stepped out of hiding. “Ralph Lamont, I presume?”

The man’s eyes widened, his pupils white-rimmed like a frightened horse. Before he could scramble to his feet, Basham deftly placed the tip of his cane into the small of the man’s back. Two trailing Bobbies were on Ralph and had him cuffed in a matter of moments. It had been quite a parade. Polly, then Basham, then Ralph, and finally, two police officers. Polly was allowed to proceed home without any knowledge of what had taken place a block or so behind her. But that ignorance was soon to be dispelled.

 

***

 

“A remarkable example of a single aphoristic thread running through multiple cases,” Atchison offered, tossing in an esoteric word that seemed to tie a bow on the sentence in which it was placed.

As the two men sat across from one another, Basham observed the room. Atchison’s office was full of wooden filing cabinets and the huge map of London. All that had changed since his last visit was the replacement of the never-to-be-trusted gas jets with incandescent lamps, and the device that had come to represent the modern revolution sitting on Atchison’s desk. The unnerving aspect of the thing was that it always seemed to be ringing.

“Going it on your own. That’s so characteristic of you,” Atchison added. “And playacting to boot, but why the trouble to take on a disguise?”

“Simple enough. To further legitimize my charade. It gave Polly a false impression. Novice that she is, I knew she would have to divulge my appearance to whomever she was in conspiracy with. Then I made sure she saw me when she closed up her shop at dusk.”

“Cloak-and-dagger. Good show. But why would this Ralph and Polly involve you after murdering Dobbins and getting the goods to begin with?”

“Their reason for doing me in was two-fold, I believe. One, Polly knew of my methodology. She couldn’t have known there was to be an investigation, but she knew that I had sniffed Joshua Henniker out of hiding and brought him to justice for the killing of Jonathan Pippin. It could be possible I might take it upon myself to question Felicia’s death. After all, I wound up with the woman’s dog.

“Secondly, Bobbins had witnessed his mistress’s murder at the hands of Lamont. I have no doubt Polly also knew I had taken possession of the tyke and hoped I would relinquish him. Dogs can’t talk, of course, but he must have bitten Ralph during the act. I saw an almost healed wound on Ralph’s ankle during the little incident in the street. He couldn’t very well kill Bobbins for that would reveal a crime more surely than the pillow he more than likely placed over Felicia’s face. And you, Detective, gave me the file because of the spec of blood found near Miss Dobbins’s door.”

“I still don’t see—”

“I believe they were concerned about Bobbins attacking again should Ralph come on the scene. That spot of blood is a large clue in this crossword puzzle. By moving in with Polly, their paths were bound to cross, another reason to arouse my suspicion, you see. In short, the problem of a nosy, retired policeman could best be solved by his elimination. Rather than my searching for this phantom Polly supposedly feared, the phantom would wait for an opportunity to strike someplace away from the residence. Can’t have two neighbors dying too near one another.

“And finally, after they bumped me off, Polly could again tell the sad story of how she had employed me to find the phantom, only for me to be a victim while the perpetrator continued to roam free.”

“You doubted her story about someone tormenting her from the beginning then?”

Basham cleared his throat as if a little embarrassed to continue. “Truth is available on a need to know basis. When dealing with suspects, you often find contradictions in their words and actions. When it came to Miss Bronson, her smile seemed genuine enough. Given the years of practicing her former trade, that ability would be a given. Yet there was a coldness in her eyes which delivered a message of contrivance, so different from the eyes of the girl I met at Frazetta’s.”

Basham paused, thinking back. “She knew I would be titillated by the tale of her phantom, but without the knowledge of my penchant for researching into any situation in which I am to become involved. She underestimated me. Anyway, the point is, she and her lover killed Miss Dobbins, and inherited a very nice little income with a flat to boot. By using their ploy to lure me into the streets at a given time and place, an incident could be written off a mere happenstance.”

“A bit farfetched, Basham, and circumstantial at best.”

“Even so, since they have been detained and questioned, a centipede of doubt about their devious acts will begin to crawl and take hold.”

“The Yard will think I’m off my chump pursuing this, but we can temporarily hold Lamont on some minor charge and question him, plant the seed that we are on to something. Keep an eye on he and madam’s reactions, but that’s the length of it.”

“You held your own suspicions about the Dobbins affair. Isn’t that why you asked me to look into it?”

Atchison’s eyebrows raised forming lines on his forehead. “Quite so, but the office won’t authorize an investigation beyond the file I provided you. You’ll have to do it on your own, old chap.”

Basham produced the slightest of grins for he knew he was standing on a line between fiction and reality. “I’ll investigate on my own.” He had been crime detecting and solving mysteries for years virtually on his own. It would be no different now, especially with the element of self-preservation tossed into the mix. Besides he had his new friend to alert him if his newest neighbors tried any more attempts on either’s welfare.

“There is, as yet, no proof that either of them has committed a crime,” Detective Atchison added.

Basham knitted his eyebrows, his sense of accomplishment unfading. He recalled a case in which a nephew snuffed out his poor Uncle Charlie with a sharp blow to the base of the man’s skull. The death was written off as an unfortunate tumble. The nephew would have gotten away with it if not for his natural tendency to return to type, to seek out some former mate and, during a drunken row, demonstrate how he had struck the old man down and how he was not to be trifled with. Confession may be good for the soul, but rather unwise for those with black hearts who have committed dark deeds.

“Polly’s accomplice was carrying a garrote in his pocket with which to throttle me, an attempt at a bloodless coup,” Basham said to Atchison. “However, extracting a confession might be akin to pulling Excalibur from the stone, but I’ll be happy to study every detail of Miss Dobbins’s life and death to put things to rights. See to it that those two culprits pay for what they’ve done.”

The opportunity for a reformed prostitute to leave a house of ill repute for a job in the flower shop had not been enough. Did Polly sweet-talk the older woman into her last will and testament, or had she earned the right, and only later become impatient? These were questions that might never be answered, but truth has a way of emerging from the very mouths that live the lie. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that Polly never expressed sadness or regret at Felicia’s passing during the conversation in Basham’s flat. He had the time and patience to wait, watch, and listen from his quiet little dwelling where his new companion awaited his return.

“Miss Dobbins was a nice lady with reportedly good taste,” Basham added. “And after all, I have her Bobbins to look after.” 


J. T. Seate is author of the popular Inspector Basham stories. Five 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),  “Basham's Theory” (April, 2014), and “St. Andrew’s Cross” (August, 2014). Four non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — “The Songbird” (August, 2014), “The Constant Reader” (April, 2013), “Mask” (March, 2013), and “Montezuma's Revenge” (January, 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!


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