Letting Off Some Steam


By J. T. Seate



The sun burns through the clouds like they were made of tissue paper. Water flops upon the bank of the Thames like an eyelid closing over the refuse. But one object is too large to be hidden by the swells of the current — a clammy body. A woman bludgeoned and garroted. Her hair, dyed the color of dried goldenrod, is matted with a mixture of blood and mud. Her mouth is open, her tongue extruded in an invitation to crawly things. Her face is a blank page, the lines of emotion and experience erased, left as worm-food. The decomposition process has been on for several hours as a drunk stumbles over her, scaring a new love for Jesus into him. The presence of the cadaver transforms the river's soothing sounds into an oxymoron of irritating rumblings that reflect a cold indifference to life. A dozen shrieking birds wheel across the azure sky...

Edgar Basham bolted upright in his chair, rocked into wakefulness from the rapping against his front door. Better a dream from his days with Scotland Yard than one of those persistent nightmares brought on from his time spent in the Crimea, he mused. Yet, when it comes to death, what's to say that one is more horrid than the other?

Since retiring from the force, Inspector Basham kept mostly to himself, yet he was respected in the small English village where he now resided. Nearly thirty years of service with The Yard, the final fifteen as an inspector had taken its toll on the stout man, now in his sixties. Earlier in the evening, he'd enjoyed a cut of roast beef and had planned a quiet evening with an after-dinner whisky, to be followed by a good book, when the insufferable sound of a fist against the door of his serene refuge had interrupted his soporific moment. He reluctantly pulled himself out of his chair in response to the unwanted interruption, tugged on the bottom of his vest removing the wrinkles, and walked to his front door.

Constable Jeffrey Fellows stood on Basham's threshold. "Good ev'nin' to you, Inspector. I've come to ask a favor."

"Come in, Constable." Basham had no doubt this favor had to do with some recent village deviltry, but held his tongue, always curious of such requests. He poured the delayed brace of whisky into a crystal glass and another for the Constable.

"Cheers, Edgar." Fellows smacked his lips and then furrowed his brow. "You know of Mr. Farnsworth, I take it, the chap who recently purchased the horseless trap, that infernal steam-powered machine that's been making its way around the countryside, frightening the animals."

"I knew of him, yes," Basham replied. "Is he..."

"Yes, inspector. Stuffed in a cellar potato bin. Not much effort to disguise the crime."

"Sounds like solid police work should bring such a case to a simple resolution. The wife's situation first, then family members, the neighbors and acquaintances. I'm sure a man of Farnsworth's stature had a few skeletons to uncover. Everyone does."

"There's more. The missus, Mrs. Farnsworth, that is, was found inside the shed that housed the locomotive, behind its wheel of the contraption, sitting as primly as you please. Only she was stone cold and soundless as the Queen's Guard. Dead as they come, Sir."

Fellows had a flair for the dramatic, but the circumstance for it seemed appropriate. "A housekeeper discovered the woman when she went to gather eggs as the shed also housed chick — "

"Go on about the dead woman," Basham interrupted.

"She wasn't moved until I arrived. The housekeeper would have thought she had fallen asleep at the wheel if not for the gash across her throat. Like a second, gaping mouth, it was. There was little blood, so she had to have been moved." Fellows shook his head and drank down the glass of spirits. "Well, then we searched the house only to quickly rule out Mr. Farnsworth as a suspect when we found him in with the pile of potatoes."

Basham held the whiskey decanter out to reunite with the Constable's glass and poured. He could imagine the appalling sight of the woman laid out in the local morgue, what remained of flesh and blood, life and breath, and laughter, reduced to a cold lump of inert clay.

"There hasn't been a homicide in the village for twenty years," Farnsworth added as he looked at his glass as if hoping to find an easy answer within its swirling contents.

"Fifteen years to be precise," Basham added. He had researched the town's history of crime before moving there five years earlier.

"And a double-homicide at that." Farnsworth finished the second whisky. Basham didn't offer a third. "Would you take a look at the crime scene and the bodies, Inspector?"

The issue of Basham being referred to as Inspector had been settled long ago. It appeared that once an officer of the law, always an officer of the law. He hesitated at the request. Thirty years of inquiries, interviews, notes, files, searches, hopes raised and dashed, years of victories and defeats. He had seen a whole array of lives cut short and other lives ruined in the process. His final case at The Yard had been the brutal business of tracking down the killer of two distinguished gentlemen on the streets of Whitechapel, a dubious area of London, while at the same time, Jack the Ripper was busy disemboweling prostitutes. Few perpetrators are arrested during the commission of their crimes, but Basham had accomplished just such a thing, only to see the hired assassin go free and the mastermind behind two murders escape justice, at least until he was found murdered in his bed sometime later. The guilt of the man behind the murders was never proven. Five years added to that sad end of a career was not a recipe that enticed him to join this local cause. He'd left all that behind him. Or so he thought. Did he want to play that game again, even as a favor to the man standing in his living room?

"Just a small cog in the wheel of jurisprudence, Inspector, that's all I'm asking for. Just opinions."

The heinous crime might be a bit overwhelming for the Constable, but Basham wasn't at all sure he could offer helpful assistance. It had been a long time.

"It would appear to be a situation close to the Farnsworth's, and we'll start there. But..."

"The staging," Basham said. "A comic joke presented for the benefit of whoever found them, and for you."

"Exactly. It makes no sense."

"That's assuming murderers are logical."

"You've had your round with perpetrators who chose to play with their pursuers. I recall the case of — "

"Exactly."

* * *

To be an effective policeman, one needed an orderly and meticulous nature, to approach a series of clues logically while retaining the ability to see beyond the linear approach — to capture the intuitive element, as it were. There were but two truths about crime solving: most crimes are not solved, and those that were are not solved through the use of evidence. Most rely on confessions or on luck. Basham would leave it to the Constable and his men to conduct official interviews and planned only to offer interpretations from what they provided. Although he'd grown cynical about his abilities of perception since retirement, something had been aroused inside Basham, some of the original passion when first becoming an officer. His thoughts were revived, clear, calm, and rational. He accompanied the Constable to the morgue. They looked at the late Mrs. Farnsworth first. "You see someone one day, and the next, they're dead. It's always a shock," Fellows offered.

"Were you personal friends with the Farnsworth's?"

"Not really, but in a small town... The husband talked about his steam machine whenever he crossed your path."

Basham closed his eyes for a moment and pictured a coffin lid closing over a woman dead before her time, taking the mystery of her death into the ground with her. "Did Mrs. Farnsworth enjoy riding?"

"She despised the billowing thing, or so said Farnsworth."

The two men moved from the woman to the body of her husband. His cause of death was strangulation. Basham tried to will the corpses to give up their secrets. He'd done this before, but there was nothing. No cries for vengeance from these dead.

For the hundredth time, Basham thought about his final case in London. There seemed little in common between the spate of murders and those in this tiny village — with the exception of one universal rule. "Violence is the language of the species, and we are its translators," he mumbled under his breath.

"What's that, Inspector?"

"Nothing that matters, Constable." Basham was reminded that being metaphorical served little purpose in the pursuit of crime. "Look for someone involved with Mrs. Farnsworth."

"You mean...romantically, Sir? Why, the Farnsworth's were a pillar of the community, more interested in his new toy than his wife, let alone a...a..."

"Still waters can run deep."

* * *

Retirement had given Basham time to ponder unanswerable questions. It was his experience that advanced age brought little additional wisdom. Answers to the great mysteries of life seemed as remote as ever. He'd never been an enthusiast of Empire building. War made no more sense to him as the Twentieth Century approached than had the Crimean affair he'd been a part of in his youth. He didn't know why the innocent suffered, nor could he understand the additions that laid waste to so many lives. The wicked seemed to thrive while those of greater virtue and character so often fell by the wayside. If their existed a Higher Power, It had been napping on the job for centuries.

The greatest riddle of all involved the nature of evil. The following day, Basham walked the streets of the town that had become his home. It lacked the assemblage of miscreants who populate the criminal subculture of a city the size of London, but it only took one individual given over to a moment of high drama to produce a villain. But this introspection wasn't taking him any closer to solving the murders. As he strolled the cobblestone pathways, he looked for nothing in particular, but the case had at least given him an excuse to get out of the house and try to convince himself he no longer missed the hunt. The mere act of passing shops and homes garnered a few tidbits about current events. Everyone had their opinion about everything that took place in a small town and seemed more ready to express them to someone unofficial than to those conducting an investigation. People had observed Mr. Farnsworth or Mrs. Farnsworth going here or there, into this shop or that leading up to the fateful day. "The devil is in the details," Basham reminded himself as he took the information home to ponder.

After retirement, Basham had moved most all his belongings from London to his village residence, thereby creating an intimate environment that was familiar. From the comfort of his winged-back chair, he thrummed his fingers against the surface of his writing desk as he studied the police report and the morgue notes. It was reported that Farnsworth could be opinionated and a bit forceful with people at times, but acquaintances weren't aware of anyone who wanted to harm the couple. There was symbolism in both murders, but Basham had learned not to over-think the situation. The simplest motive was usually the correct one. The answer to a puzzle was always in some tiny detail.

The Farnsworth's service and double-burial was conducted in a nearby churchyard. Though they hadn't been churchgoers, the establishment was promised a handsome donation to be collected when the estate was settled. Basham attended the affair because he felt confident the killer would be among the mourners. In a village such and this, one would be conspicuous by their absence. One attendee in particular caught Basham's eye. It was Miles Donovan, the town's feed merchant. Like most of the men, he wore a dark suit and was somber, but he also wore a fading bruise on his cheekbone a dash of powder attempted to hide. Basham wouldn't have noticed if not for the fact that Donovan's stature set him a head taller than the others, over six feet in height and muscular.

Something niggled in Basham's mind setting it quickly in motion. Donovan had the size and strength to overpower either of the Farnsworth's and position them as he pleased. He studied Donovan's demeanor as the crowd dispersed, the women to rendezvous for tea and cakes, and the men to the tavern, both gatherings to undoubtedly discuss who the perpetrator of this horrible act might have been.

Instead of joining the men who would be unremitting with their questions and opinions, Basham watched Donovan. He did not go to the tavern, but went to his store instead. After all, it wasn't as if it were a holiday. By the time Basham entered the store; Donovan had removed his jacket and stood behind the counter, business as usual.

"Good day, Miles," Basham said.

"Not sure I'd call it that, Inspector."

"You're right. It is a sad day for our village at that." Basham came quickly to the point. "It's my understanding that Mrs. Farnsworth placed an order the morning of her death."

"Possibly."

"Did you make the delivery?"

Donovan hesitated, and then said, "You've spoken to that busybody, Mrs. Wentworth, I take it?"

"I've agreed to make inquiries. I can have a look at your orders if need be."

"Not necessary. I made the delivery."

"Then you might well have been the last person to see the Farnsworth's alive."

Donovan stared at Basham.

"You might have had an encounter, judging by that knock on your face," Basham continued. "Cosmetics aren't hiding it very well, I'm, afraid."

Donovan lowered his head. He'd always held the reputation of an honest man, not one likely to hide behind a falsity. Basham was sure the man had a secret, perhaps more than one, and felt equally certain it was eating him up inside. He approached Donovan until he stood across the counter as if he were about to make a purchase. "Tell me what happened, Miles," he asked calmly.

Donovan's blue eyes looked into Basham's. His pallor had taken on an unnatural color of someone who'd been embalmed. "They had quarreled over the motorcar. Millicent was determined to drive the thing, and Farnsworth was just as determined she wouldn't, she told me. She asked if I would deliver an order later in the day and get the contraption started for her. I questioned her going against her husband's wishes, but she was adamant."

"So, you went to the house and helped her in spite of Farnsworth's protestations?"

"That's what I'd planned to do, but when I arrived, I heard a heated argument between them and went inside to see..."

"You feared for Millicent's safety."

"Quite so. I was worried..."

Basham suddenly had one of his hunches. "Was there something between you and Mrs. Farnsworth? Is that why she asked you to help?"

Donovan's expression said everything. Basham knew they were lovers or had wanted to be. "What did you find inside the house?"

"Millicent lay on the pantry floor in a pool of blood, her throat cut open. Farnsworth stood near her, the knife in his hand."

Donovan stopped. Basham took a flask filled with his preferred Scotch blend from his coat pocket and thrust it against the man's chest, a good ploy when men were sharing confidences. Donovan took a hearty swig from the container, and then proceeded with what he knew Basham was waiting to hear.

"Farnsworth accused me of having relations with his wife. He said I was welcome to join her in hell and came at me, knife raised. I dodged his attack and got the better of him, wrapping my arm around his neck. Well, I led him to the cellar to find rope to bind his wrists. I had every intention of leading him all the way to the station house if need be, but his vile insults continued. I didn't want to listen. He was belittling Millicent even as she lay dead on the floor. I shut the braggart up with my hands. The potato bin seemed an appropriate place for his journey into the next world, without any dignity left."

"What did you do next?"

"I think you know the answer to that, Inspector. I let Millicent get what she'd so wanted. I cleaned up her blood, I dressed her in appropriate togs for riding and lifted her into the steam-auto's seat." A tear glistened against Donovan's cheek. "It was the least I could do. Don't you agree?"

Basham nodded. He was relearning the old lesson of how fragile the human psyche could be. A life lost at the hands of another was sad enough, but to forfeit it because of a mindless and petty altercation, of someone's vanity being offended, was even more ludicrous than the lives wasted during wartime. He remembered a curious double homicide in London where a wife laced a plate of biscuits with rat poison. In the throws of death, with all the fury and mire of human complexity at work, the husband choked the life from his wife. They were found on the floor, he on top of her, the rictus of death a grim reminder of the reality of marital discord, another reason Basham had never chosen to try it.

The nature of evil, as much a riddle to Basham now as it was the day he was born. He had little doubt that Donovan was a decent man, but it didn't change the facts. What else was there to do except listen to the perpetrator's story again in the Constable's presence at the station house.


J. T. Seate's publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs. This is the second short story featuring Inspector Basham to appear in omdb! online. omdb! readers were first introduced to Inspector Basham in "Turn About" (November, 2012). Three non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — "Mask" (March, 2013), "Montezuma's Revenge" (January, 2013), and "The Constant Reader".

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 2013 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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