TURN ABOUT


By J. T. Seate



Autumn, 1888 — Whitechapel district of London

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. Murder was by no means an uncommon occurrence in Whitechapel, but the usual motive of theft was absent in this spate of killings.

Like The Ripper's victims, the males were found in drifting veils of fog. A passerby had nearly tripped over the sprawled legs of Samuel Hatch, a fiction writer of some renown. He lay on a side street in a pool of blood, his eyes dulled by death. Knife wounds in his lower torso had done the trick. Two days later, a second slaying occurred, more infamous than the first. Mr. Jonathan Bowes, a financier with the Royal Bank of London, had been mutilated in a most grizzly fashion, his genitals cut away and placed in his mouth suggesting an attempt to humiliate the corpse in the severest way.

When Inspector Edgar Basham arrived upon the scene of the second homicide, the terrible sense of pathos overwhelmed him. It didn't take a genius to grasp the similarity between these murders and those of The Ripper. Beyond thievery, searching for motive was like poking around in the dark, secret niches of the human heart. He had seen most everything in his thirty years of police work. He understood the human animal well enough to know the taking of a life could induce not only a feeling of power, but also incredible exhilaration.

Basham currently reigned as the oldest member of the inspector corps. He bristled at the notion his most effective days were behind him for he wasn't as yet in need of medicine bottles or nostrums cluttering up shelves. A pint of ale could ease a touch of arthritis and keep him going splendidly, thank you.

Chief Inspector Ellis had placed Basham on the case involving the two murdered men. Normally, a full compliment of detectives would investigate the stabbing of prominent citizens, but Scotland Yard was currently absorbed with The Ripper. The violent nature of the killings and his taunting missives made great copy in the daily papers.

Basham ordered Bowes's body covered before a gathering crowd could encircle the ghoulish remains. Rumors would flourish soon enough about a second fiend running loose, killing men this time.

Turn about.

* * *

Basham canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses without success. Afterwards, he paid a visit to the late Mr. Hatch's residence. Elizabeth Hatch was a striking woman and the house she had shared with Mr. Hatch was equally impressive, appropriated with splendid furniture pieces to compliment a classical art collection. The dead writer had done well.

Procedure dictated an expression of condolences. Her uncommon restraint could have been continued shock, but Basham didn't think so. She offered Basham a seat in a high-winged chair which had most certainly served as the throne for the former Mr. Hatch.

Primly perched on the edge of an adjacent chaise, Mrs. Hatch's face was stamped with a calm, regal gaze during the brief interview. She was cordial, but the corners of her mouth reflected lambency. Basham believed she might very well be stifling a jag of laughter. He saw little pretense of a mournful widow or any hint of tremor or anguish over the fact that her husband lay cold as clay in the morgue. Basham wrote in his report that Mrs. Hatch displayed little emotion and showed an unmitigated lack of regret.

Mrs. Bowes was different from Mrs. Hatch in every respect with two notable exceptions: both were women of societal class and both rather blasé about becoming widows. Mrs. Bowes was a veritable Magpie, whereas Mrs. Hatch had been austere. Her living conditions were comparable to Mrs. Hatch's with perhaps an extra flair of color in the fabrics to reflect the more vibrant personality of its mistress. Once seated, Basham asked Mrs. Bowes if she knew of anyone who might want to harm her husband.

In the ensuing conversation, the woman pleaded ignorance of her husband's proclivities. "Are you and Mrs. Hatch acquaintances?" Basham asked.

"Yes, we are." She lowered her eyes a bit suspiciously.

"How do you know Mrs. Hatch?"

"Same social circles, but we developed a friendship in The Ladies Knitting Society."

"The Ladies Knitting Society?"

"That's correct, a small group of women who enjoy knitting together. It must sound terribly dull to a dashing inspector, but it does give us an outlet, just as you men have activities excluding wives."

"Activities such as your husbands may have practiced?"

"I don't know what Jonathan did when he frequented that horrible end of town." Her words smacked with melodrama.

Basham stood rather stiffly. "I think that's enough for now, Mrs. Bowes. I'm terribly sorry for your loss, mum."

"We must all be brave," Patricia responded with a theatrical flourish.

"May I call on you again should I need further information?"

"What more could you possibly need?"

"Well, Mrs. Bowes, an inspector has to inspect. There are always tidbits of information to be found. Remember, we're trying to solve the murders of your husband and Mr. Hatch."

"Certainly, Inspector. You must do your duty."

"Give my regards to Mrs. Hatch."

"Of course."

The person or persons who had committed two murders acted with hot passion whereas a good detective proceeded with cold resolve. The two widows would manage grandly without their husbands. Over the years, Basham's intuition had proved equal to facts. As Patricia closed the door, he believed two homicides were very close to being solved.

Basham visited the other two wives belonging to the Knitting Society. Beyond the expected condolences for Hatch and Bowes, the interviews yielded nothing more enticing than Victorian indulgences for midday tea and the currency of their wardrobes. He then spoke with the surviving husbands to see if they too were in the habit of seeking entertainment in Whitechapel. The conversations revealed the four men had their own club, of sorts. Hatch might have had a thin excuse to visit the cities seamier districts and consort with less than savory characters to gather research for his mysterious tales, but the predilections of the other ostensibly respectable men seemed dubious.

Outsiders usually saw news of husbands killing their wives, drunkards and dope fiends killing each other as a grim, amusing spectacle to be read about on the back pages of The Times, until dear old Jack appeared on the scene. Front page news made the subject of death a little less sporting. Still, Basham was glad to be alone on the case while so many others chased The Ripper. He wanted his expertise to be valued, his age to be no draw-back, and to demonstrate he was needed. In short, he wanted to close the case of the slain men himself, one last hurrah.

* * *

Dudley Morrissey was the third of the Ladies Knitting Society husbands. The two murders had affected Dudley to the point of introversion. It was all he could do to get out of the house and to his office. Then there was Frederick Pippin, the vice-president of a brokerage firm and husband to the fourth member of the knitting consortium. Basham had been watching Pippin's fashionable dwelling late one evening following the routine of criminal investigation: inquire, examine, and make systematic observations.

Mr. Pippin suddenly emerged and hailed a hansom. Behind the clip-clop of a horse, Basham tailed Pippin in a second carriage. His trained eyes noted everything as they progressed into areas ever cheaper and more sordid. Along the path were tatty storefronts followed by a string of flophouses and tenements. Alleyways sparsely lit by faulty gas lamps fanned out like spider webs where people who had sunk to their lowest level might debase themselves further. He shamelessly hoped the current Knitting Society husband out for a night of intrigue would be the lynchpin for his case's conclusion.

Pippin's carriage had barely come to a halt before he was afoot and striding toward a brothel. With Mr. Hatch and Mr. Bowes not yet cold in their graves, one would have thought a third husband's thirst for adventure would have steered him somewhere other than Whitechapel. Men of means weren't easily dissuaded when it came to procuring that which they felt entitled, however, not to mention their irrational sense of omniscient indestructibility. Basham descended from his hansom and hid in the shadows where he waited for Mr. Pippin.

When he emerged, no coach stood awaiting a fare. Basham had made sure of that. Consequently, Pippin strolled along the cobblestones with Basham following at a distance. Pippin had gone no more than a block when a figure flew from another dark corner and closed quickly.

"Hold!" Basham shouted in their direction. Pippin froze. "No!" Basham bellowed as two misty outlines came together, one with a raised knife and the other just having time to lift an arm in defense. The knife slashed forward and Pippin cried out. The perpetrator then turned and ran toward an alleyway. Basham ran past Pippin in pursuit. Even at his age, Basham had the speed to catch a person restricted by a heavy skirt. After a brief skirmish, he wrapped an arm around the woman's waist and twisted the knife from her hand. To Basham's surprise, the face didn't belong to anyone he had suspected.

Pippin arrived on the scene holding his opposite hand against an injured arm.

"Do you know this woman?" Basham asked.

Pippin looked at his attacker in astonishment. "Nell..."

"You said her name, Sir. Who is she? A friend to The Knitting Society?"

Pippin's face strained with incredulity. "God in heaven, no. She's one of Madam Frazzeta's women. Why would you want to harm me, Nell?"

"Better to ask the likes of your wife, Luv," Nell said with a malicious curve to her lip. "She put a pretty price on your head."

Basham bound the woman's wrists and blew his whistle. When a pair of Bobbies arrived, he instructed one of them to look after Pippin's wound. Pippin was subdued. His mournful face suggested he had said too much already. Basham instructed a sergeant to take Pippin to the station and Nell to The Yard's holding facility.

"Are you all right, Inspector?" the sergeant asked.

"Never better. Absolutely tip-top," Basham answered. "I haven't had a jolly good chase for some time. I'll be along shortly."

He intended to follow, but not until he stopped to sort it all out prior to Nell's interrogation. His eyes brooded beneath his salt-and-pepper brows as he looked into the head of foam setting atop the pint of ale. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," he told the barkeep who grinned toothlessly and returned to his chores.

The deaths of two men and the planned death of perhaps two more would most certainly lead back to the hearths of their own lodgings, but Inspector Basham had been slightly off-kilter in his analysis. He hadn't given The Ladies Knitting Society enough credit in thinking they had taken turns murdering one another's husbands. Instead he believed they had been clever enough to hire brothel chattel to perform the dastardly deeds. If they paid a different girl each time, he would find out soon enough. With Nell, he would play the kindly old patriarch to discover how she had been lured into this web of intrigue, set in motion by four wives who decreed death to their philandering spouses.

Not far from where Basham stood, a couple of drunken louts on the verge of fisticuffs tossed unrefined words back and forth. Then one of them said something which gave Basham pause.

"If I want to get away with somethin', mate, you'll be the first I'll put on the fookin' job."

The words hung in the air like stale smoke. Why had he alone been assigned to this case? Chief Inspector Ellis had said, "I have faith you'll land those responsible in short order, Basham. It's usually the most obvious path that leads to a solution." Basham found it an odd comment. No house of cards was more rickety than one trusting in faith to solve a crime. The man liked to twist the tail of the oldest dog in the kennel now and then, but maybe Ellis believed Basham the least likely to dig deeply for the bone.

Then it came over Basham in a rush, as if a powerful lamp had been lit in the darkness. He had been lost in the rapture of bringing The Ladies Knitting Society to account. Could the group really have conceived a plot to ensnare adulterous husbands? Could any female have the fortitude to gratuitously emasculate a victim? These were Victorian women with social status. They could have no more parlayed such a conspiracy than they could have played the roles of crusty prostitutes. Nell's cry of "Better to ask the likes of your wife" was merely a cover. If caught, Basham was convinced Nell had been instructed to turn the investigation back toward the wives. His first assumptions had been too simple, too obvious to be the truth.

A man of cunning who knows the ends and outs of the legal system could free Nell from the hook with the proper alibi. Her reward to risk murder at another's bidding? Perhaps a stipend to free Nell from conscription. Scenarios began to click inside Basham's head like a key smoothly turning a tumbler to unlock a door. One or more prostitutes committed the murders and were paid by another party to do so and perhaps waited in the wings to make sure the executions were carried out, and to add a personal touch if he so chose. Had the culprit been watching as Basham interfered? A patchwork of possibilities began to funnel into one.

Chief Inspector Ellis had recently banished his wife amidst rumors of an affair. She had been provided lodging by a benefactor to carry on with the liaison. Ellis's wife had turned the proud, inflexible man into a cuckold. What might one with sadistic tendencies, partnered with an obsessive desire to revert back from victim to tormentor do? Humiliation had the power to drive a person to an act of blood lust, resentment becoming a homicidal fury. Basham would bet his pension Mrs. Ellis's lover was one of the Knitting Society's husbands.

Turn about.

The two barroom louts were now swearing loudly about the other's progeny. Basham finished his ale and left the pub before the miscreants started a row in which he would be forced to intervene.

* * *

continued...


Copyright 2012 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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