THE CHOPPER

(Inspector Basham’s Final Case)

 

By J. T. Seate

 

 

Following a bawdy brothel performance, an Englishman strolled along a cobblestone London Street. Suddenly, spindly fingers reached up from behind him and brushed his cheek. They belonged to a young lady who was clearly of a lower station than himself.

“Oh, dear Sir,” she crooned. “I saw yer comin’ from the madam’s. I recognized you right off, I did. Never imagined I’d come face to face with the likes of a famous personage such as yourself. I trust you ain’t that Jack the Ripper bloke?”

“What do you want?” the man asked, anxious to be on his way.

“I can read, yer know. I’ve read everything you’ve put to paper. I ’ave one of your books just here in me pocket, if you’d be so kind as to sign it.”

The man flashed the briefest of smiles, just enough to hide his irritation. “I have a pen. Produce your book. I’ll sign it and you can be off, then.”

“And if you’d be kind enough to pitch in a few bob, I can provide better than what they offer in that house. I could give you a night you won’t soon be forgettin’.”

“See here, madam. I don’t believe you have a book for me to sign at all.”

“Most surely I do, Sir. Here it is.” From within a skirt pocket, the woman produced not a book, but a carving knife with an eight-inch blade. “Ere yer go.” She rammed the weapon into the man’s torso. “Like I said, you won’t be forgettin’ me any time soon, I’ll wager.”

During pre-dawn hours two days hence, a second man waited for a hansom when a woman approached.

“How about one for the road, Govn’r?”

Jonathan Bowes never picked up women from the street. He preferred the confines of Madam Frazzeta’s relatively safe house. He looked at the hooded woman with some amusement. “I’ll give you a shilling for swill if you’ll be off.”

“Add a crown and I’ll show you me teats and cunny.”

Jonathan smirked. “A shilling and not a pence more.”

“Perhaps you’d fancy a kiss then.”

“Let me see your face.”

“By all means. Have a good look.”

The woman’s arm moved quickly. A knife blade tore through the skin beneath Jonathan’s jaw, sped through the roof of his mouth past his nasal cavity, and reached the base of his brain. Without a word, he fell in a heap and was left for rats to find.


Death: Oftentimes it is natural, a merciful end to suffering. But all too often it comes as a cruel, senseless assassin, whether by accident, suicide, or murder. The above scene was the way retired inspector Edgar Basham pictured the two murders on the seedy streets of Whitechapel during the autumn of 1888, more than a dozen years earlier. He thought of the other case going on at the time as well. While a killer called Jack the Ripper busily disemboweled streetwalkers in the East End of London, someone was also dispatching men as if running on a parallel track, a bizarre coincidence. The murdered men had proven to be the most mysterious case of Basham’s career, one that forever held loose ends, and one he thought of often when reflecting over his years of crime detection.

He sat on a bench near the river that ran through the heart of London like a dark liquid headed toward eternity. Droplets of mist clung to his overcoat, hat, and mustache. Fatigue and arthritis made his knees ache. From this point, he could see the gentle curve of the river as it passed beneath the reflective glow of street lamps. A wave of cool air played an unwelcome tune on his joints. He had no interest in parlor sťance rooms. Such endeavors would not remove the spirits that haunted him while he contemplated the scales and measures of days past and of the current day, now at an end.

A jagged flash of lightening momentarily lit the night. The trailing thunder clap arrived with an ominous warning growl, but still Basham remained, pondering his years of service to Scotland Yard as well as the years which had followed. In retirement, not many cases he’d been privy to required fishing expeditions into the river for missing bodies, but this final one would involve just that. Yet at this moment, he found the Thames to be merely a symbol of life, meandering along, sometimes serene and tranquil, other times troubled and fitful, much like himself.

As a young man, he had been in love with a woman whom he considered so perfect she seemed otherworldly. To his regret, she married another. It was then that something grabbed hold of Basham’s heart and snapped it apart. He had never tried to love again, but chose rather to spend his days and nights trying to unravel the riddle of uncomfortable emotions, an unsolvable task. Broken bodies proved no worse than broken hearts, but in spite of being without a wife and childless, he would leave some mark on society when he passed on — a string of solved cases.

Another flash of lightening. It should have sent him scurrying to his flat next to a fireplace with his fingers wrapped around a warm, sweet libation, but it somehow seemed important to witness nature’s fury rather than be cloistered indoors. His first homicide case had been uncovered near these very banks. His most recent, at a gateway into the Tower of London, he could see from his perch, the glow of lights revealing its age. The first and last case, both leaving their maniacal mark upon London’s streets, occurring near the water, the alpha and omega, a circle closed. For the better part of seventy years, he had been part of the city and he wanted to take its leave on his own terms. There was little doubt that evil would thrive in the 20th century. With each passing year, it seemed to grow. Could the new millennium be the threshold upon which the world tumbled into unprecedented horrors? 

Alas, it was no longer his concern. At the edge of the world, he uttered but one word. “Natalie.”


* * *

The last case Atchison asked Basham to research was a grisly one. Basham had read the files trying to get a sense of the perpetrator, the mission, the “why” motivating the “who.” A severed head belonging to a Joshua Harrington was found resting squarely on a cornerstone of London Bridge. The associative body had not been found and the man’s identity would have been difficult if not for the fact that he was recognized as a rather famous artist. The previous year, two women had been decapitated. Basham had not been consulted until the artist’s head was placed on exhibition. The papers had dubbed the unknown killer The Chopper.

While Scotland Yard went on its fishing expedition for the rest of Mr. Harrington, Basham was given the job he’d proved proficient at: finding clues and people to interview, and often gaining confessions. The unseemly beheading had taken him back to his days in the Crimea when a British regiment came upon a vacated enemy encampment where they found a severed head jammed onto a fence post. Three letters — SPY — were scribbled on a scrap of paper and tacked beneath the obscenity. It had reminded him of something he’d read in a history book — heads stuck on pikes along London Bridge during rebellious times. To come across such an extreme display of barbarism during the Crimean war was rare, but it made a lasting impression on the soldiers. The murderer in this last instance may have liked the symbolism of repeating history, but most certainly it was a statement personal in nature.

With the aid of an appointment book provided by Inspector Atchison, Basham first took a cursory tour of the Harrington flat and studio before checking into the man’s liaisons. He then conducted interviews, looking particularly for any rifts that may have existed within that framework, and was disappointed that nothing struck him as queer.

Afterwards, Basham returned to the artist’s studio for a closer look. The man had been a decent impressionist, better than the offerings available along the river walks, but had apparently gone for realism in at least one instance. Covered with oil cloth in a far corner of the room stood the painting of a woman that was far from impressionistic. The painting’s subject reflected both a fragility and a sensuousness that reminded Basham of Goya’s The Nude Maja. There was nothing obscene about this interpretation of the naked form. Still, it was such a change from the other paintings, and there was a passion in the canvas that brought the subject to life. Harrington had clearly been inspired when he put the image to canvas. The female in the painting had not been anyone Basham had interviewed, meaning there had not been appointments in the artist’s book for the settings, at least not recently.

Within a few days, Basham tracked down the landlords of Harrington’s flat and studio. The leaser of the studio had seen a young woman occasionally come and go. “A real looker, she was, Govn’r,” he shared. “Usually came late at night. None of my business what goes on in rented spaces and I ain’t no Peepin’ Tom, mind you, but I have to keep an eye on the place for the owner, you understand.”

“Of course, but have you any idea who the woman is or where she lives?”

“Don’t know ’er name, I don’t pry, but as far as her livin’ quarters, each time I seen ’er she was on foot, so maybe she don’t live far.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Don’t suppose it was ’er that cut off ’is head, do you?”

Not interested in superficial banter, Basham gave the man no more than a smile. He returned home with the painting of the nude woman on his mind. He considered suggesting that a police sketch artist draw the likeness of the woman’s face and post flyers in the surroundings near the studio, then decided it would merely create unnecessary speculation and false information.

The next day, a service was held without a body. The artist’s head remained in the custody of authorities while the search for the rest of him continued. There proved to be quite a turnout given the man’s talent and his unusual demise, made public by a newspaper headline screaming, ARTIST’S HEAD DISPLAYED ON LONDON BRIDGE, BODY MISSING – ANOTHER VICTIM OF THE CHOPPER? Sensationalism never went out of style and for a few bob there forever existed someone to pass along tasty morsels to the press.

The service presented Basham with an opportunity to study the faces in attendance. One never knew when or where someone with knowledge of an event, or the perpetrator himself, might appear to gloat over his kill. The minister droned on about the Good Lord lifting up this faithful soul with his mighty hand and welcoming him into a golden mansion of many rooms. And finally the intoning, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” intended to be the closing of earthly existence. It was such an inadequate summation of life. Dust to dust — his remains resigned to nothing more than the awaiting hole in the ground, should a body be found to place in it.

Basham took notice of one woman. A veil covered her face, but his instinct told him she was the woman in Harrington’s painting. Before the ceremony concluded, the woman quietly took her leave. Already at the rear of the church, Basham was able to watch through beveled glass as she took one of the awaiting hansoms. Waiting a few seconds, he bolted from the church on painfully arthritic joints, hobbled to the next hansom and shouted, “Follow that cabbie. This is police business.”

The driver prodded his horse away from the curb. Basham wasn’t surprised when the lead carriage entered the neighborhood of Harrington’s studio. He was keen on the idea that she might be the key to Harrington’s untimely end, the lynchpin that would open the door to enlightenment.

Basham watched as the woman stepped from her transport and paid the cabbie. She glanced this way and that as if believing she might have been followed. Because of this, Basham had his driver pass by, but observed the building she entered. It consisted of a flower shop at street level with rooms above. God help him. Would he never be finished with flower shops?

Shutters from one of the rooms opened. On foot again, Basham strolled along as if merely an ordinary passerby, but managed to notice the woman leaning out and looking to make sure no one was observing her. He proceeded around the corner of the block and waited long enough for her to discontinue her vigil.

Basham entered the landing next to the shop. A woman with hair the consistency of a haystack preceded him. When she loitered in the lobby, he grunted and bustled past her to the stairway. His arthritis was getting worse. The climb to the second floor was painful and exhausting. He found the door that corresponded to the open window and rapped softly. He listened as footsteps approached within.

“Who’s there?” ask a timid voice.

 “A friend of Mr. Harrington’s. Please allow me to speak with you.”

“Are you a policeman?”

“No, miss. Just a sad friend in as much grief as yourself.” It wasn’t a total lie for he now answered only to Atchinson.

“How did you find me?” Her voice was flat enough to slip underneath the door. 

Basham fumbled for a moment trying to recall Harrington’s first name. “Joshua shared the beauty of his painting with me.” He mentally crossed his fingers hoping he hadn’t revealed something she would know to be a lie.

Then the door’s lock disengaged. One eye peaked through the crack. He must not have appeared too intimidating, for she opened the door far enough to allow him entry. She then craned her neck down the hallway, making sure he was alone. She’d had time to change from her black dress and bonnet into a peasant blouse and skirt, simplicity of the ensemble setting off a quite lovely face and figure. Standing before Basham, he could not help but envision her without clothes as he’d seen her in Harrington’s painting when her face was relaxed and pleasant, a face that could twist a man’s heart, one he could want all to himself. 

“Joshua told me he wouldn’t share the painting with anyone until the time was right,” she stated rather unhappily.

“To my knowledge, Miss, it was shared with no one else.” He didn’t want to pile more lies upon the heap if he could avoid it. “I saw you at his funeral and knew I must speak to you.”

“I knew someone was watching me. Thank God it was you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Whomever killed Joshua. Maybe he would want to finish me if he knew of his painting.” The woman dropped into a chair and began to wring her hands.

“Perhaps I can help if you’ll share the reason for your apprehension. I know an official at Scotland Yard —”

 “It’ll do no good,” she interrupted. “If the person I suspect has done Joshua in, he is much too crafty to be caught. I can only hope he did not do it, because that would mean he knows of the painting. He’s jealous beyond all reason and has made up his mind he shall have me.”

“Who is this man?”

“I dare not tell you, Sir. You had better hope he doesn’t see you when you go or there will be hell to pay.” The woman’s nervousness grew as she spoke, the very thought of what she was saying causing distress. “Why did you follow me? What do you want?”

“I don’t even know your name. Please tell me who you are and what arrangement you and Joshua had, as one of his friends to another?”

“Oh, we were more than friends. I’m Alicia Ashley,” she said timidly. “We were…”

“Yes, Ms. Ashley. I could see the affection for you in Joshua’s painting. If you have knowledge of who might have committed this brutal crime, please let me help you for both our sakes. Is this person another lover?”

Alicia hesitated. She continued to wring her hands. A look of something close to dread crawled over her face. “He might call himself that.”

“Alicia,” Basham said in a kindly, fatherly voice, “you’re obviously in fear. Tell me who this man is and —”

“He’s a brut, Sir. He gave me a lovely necklace once, but he is not kind or gentle. I didn’t want to see him anymore, but he is not a man to care for another’s sentiments. He saw me lunching with Joshua one day and demanded to know who he was. I told him about the painting, God help me. He said no other man could have me, or any part of me.”

Alicia rubbed her arms as if suddenly cold while she spun her tale. Basham could imagine the man’s hands grasping them and threatening her. “Tell me all you can about this unsavory character.”

“I never know when to expect him. But with Joshua’s murder, I expect him soon to gloat, or worse, to accuse me of…”

“You took a risk even attending the service, it seems.”

Alicia started to cry. “Joshua was very kind to me. I owed him my reverence. He planned to pay me a handsome sum should he decide to sell the painting. What shall I do now?”

“You can start by telling me the man’s name.”

Alicia sniffled. “He calls himself Hyde. Mr. Edward Hyde.”

A hideous character from one of the Scotsman Robert Stevenson’s novellas, Basham noted. This truly was a depraved individual, but was he a murderer and decapitator?

“I want you to come with me, Ms. Avery. You are not safe here.”

The sniffles ended. The woman looked startled by the immediacy Basham felt. She looked around her flat as if wondering what to do next.

“A small bag only. Anything further can be picked up later. I’ll wait in the hallway while you do what is necessary.” Basham moved to the door. “Please be quick,” he advised.

He knew everything she had told him to be true. It was only right to offer her protection. After closing Alicia’s door behind him, he turned and saw the woman he had seen below, now in the upstairs hallway. Had she been listening outside the door?

“May I help you madam?”

 The woman’s face turned toward Basham. He looked into her eyes. They were lifeless eyes, no hint of light behind them, and Basham realized too late that these were not the eyes of a doddering, unkempt woman, but those of a man. The muscles in the man’s face moved in a manner that seemed alien. His brow lowered and his lips curled. He truly could have been a model for Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde. The figure lunged at Basham. Basham’s arm came up in defensive, but age and ailments slowed his reflexes. The attacker shoved him to the floor. Something more debilitating than a fist connected with Basham’s skull. A white brilliance leaped across his world. He heard Alicia’s terrifying screams before falling into the oblivion of a black hole, conscious no longer.

The screams got the attention of another tenant who found a Bobbie. Basham was just coming around as the policeman raced up the stairs far too late to save Alicia Avery. “Are you all right, Sir?” one of the two Bobbies now at the scene asked.

His eyes became clear enough to see what he hoped he wouldn’t; the carnage that lay on the floor inside Alicia’s room. Her severed head hung by its hair from the edge of the door like a trophy. Basham’s life was probably spared because of Alicia’s bloodcurdling screams and the perpetrator having time only to kill and show off his most gruesome handiwork. The saving grace was the information Alicia — God rest her soul — had provided Basham about her Mr. Hyde and the partial description he himself could provide about the attack.

The Yard would take it from here, but he had failed to prevent a murder, a fact that would prove difficult to deal with.

 

* * *

 

The inclement weather had moved out of the city and across the channel. At daybreak, two patrolling Bobbies noticed a dark shape silhouetted on a bench. Upon inspection, they found a man lying on his side, stone cold. One officer checked for a pulse or a breath of which there was neither.

“Well, another one for the morgue. Doesn’t appear to be foul play, but the coroner will want a look-over.”

The second officer took a cursory glance at the body and stiffened. “Good Lord, Sturgis. You know who this is? I think it’s Inspector Basham, the old fellow Atchison called on when he was in the soup.”

“You don’t say.”

 “I do say.” Goodman started to look inside the corpse’s overcoat.

“Hold on. It’s for the boys at the shop to rifle through his clothing. Leave him be.”

 

* * *

 

“I had seen signs of palsy, and the autopsy revealed a serious heart condition,” Atchison told Detective Jamison Breeding. “Could have blown on him at any time, but it wasn’t his heart that took him.”

“What then?”

“An overdose of morphine. Basham was an unfathomable enigma, you see. The destruction of faculties is difficult for any man, but for a bulldog such as him, it must have been horrible. He was a private person, not one to share personal issues or to suffer the effects of a slow deterioration.”

“I would never have thought it of him. And he provided the lead that led to the Chopper.”

“He left a note.”

The detective raised his head and looked at Atchison.

“He requested that half of his estate go toward the care of retired public servants down on their luck, and the other half to the care of homeless animals, Bobbins, first of all.”

“I’ll see to the care of Bobbins personally. Anything more? A reason for his actions?”

“Suffice it to say he would have preferred a heroic ending, but he no longer cared to defend himself against a suffering no longer worth the battle.”

Breeding sighed. “That’s it then.”

“Not quite. Before he walked to the river, he stopped at Yard Headquarters. He left a letter for me.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense, Inspector. I was as close to the man as you.”

“Quite so. Oftentimes the dicey methods used in detection are very close to crime itself. Basham not only knew the identity of Jack the Riper, but he executed him as well.”

“What’s that you say?”

“The letter revealed who The Ripper was. Basham caught him leaving the room of Mary Jane Kelly following the bloody rampage. He followed him down near the river, ask him for a light, shot him dead, and dumped the body into the river, simple as that.”

“But why the secrecy? The crime of the century, for Christ sake?”

It was Atchison’s turn to sigh. “As I said, Basham was a private man for the most part. He did not want the publicity or an investigation of his methods, I suppose. There are often times we break with protocol, as you know. It was enough to know the killing was over, and he was still on the case of the murdered men at that time.”

“Was the body found?”

“Taken out to sea, Basham speculated, or fished out of the murk by a couple of buggers on the lookout for fresh meat to be used in a hospital classroom.”

“Who was it, Inspector? Who was Jack the Ripper?”

“Yes. Well, I’m afraid I can’t say. Too much at stake. Sorry.”

“And the letter?”

“I burned it. Better to let sleeping dogs lie in this instance in spite of how much water has passed beneath the bridge in all these years. Sorry, old chap.” Then Atchison broke the gloom by adding something uncharacteristic of his personality. “Shall we go out and raise a glass or two to Basham’s memory, Jamison?”  


J. T. Seate is author of eight stories in the popular Inspector Basham series, including this final story, Chopper. The previous seven Inspector Basham stories published online at omdb! are “Turn About” (November, 2012), “Letting Off Some Steam (July, 2013), “The Case of the Open Grave” (October, 2013),  “Basham's Theory” (April, 2014), “St. Andrew’s Cross” (August, 2014),  “Cat and Mouse” (December, 2014), and “Winds of Change” (March, 2015).

Six non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — “Light My Fire” (March, 2015), The Thompson Kid” (December, 2014), “The Songbird” (August, 2014), “The Constant Reader” (April, 2013), “Mask” (March, 2013), “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 © 2015 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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