The Case of the Open Grave


By J. T. Seate



Inspector Basham, retired from Scotland Yard for more than five years, was feeling a bit giddy. Not only were his aches and pains somewhat soothed by life in his adopted rural village, but he'd recently solved a local crime rather handily. There was a downside to his sleuthing history, however — the questions about The Ripper case, and the need to explain that he was quite possibly the only Scotland Yard detective who hadn't worked it.

A rapping at Basham's door interrupted his reverie. It was tentative, little more than a rattling gust you might expect from the hand of a woman, but he knew very well who stood outside. As a result of bringing poor Donovan to justice for killing a local abusive husband, Constable Fellows was coming to Basham every time a child lost his bicycle or a woman misplaced her parasol. Basham wasn't psychic, for God's sake. He'd merely followed a hunch which had quickly led to Donovan. On this occasion, the constable came knocking before Basham had digested his morning poached egg and finished his cinnamon tea. He felt a bit like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes playing against the irrepressible Inspector Lestrade.

The knocking persisted, a little more insistent this time. Finally, the better angels of Basham's nature prevailed and he let the annoying interloper in. "What could it possibly be this time, Lest...er...Constable? A stolen pair of ice skates or high button shoes perhaps?"

"Sorry to disturb you, Inspector," he answered sheepishly as he removed his hat.

Basham felt ashamed of himself. He hadn't meant to sound superior. After all, it was he who'd agreed to assist in the murder case, so if he was sought after, he had only himself to blame.

"It's this way," Fellows continued. "A body has been removed from the cemetery, the old place on the hill at the edge of town."

It was a sorry state of affairs when not even the dead could rest; Basham thought, but at least the supposition had more interest than a lost and found conundrum. "Go on," he told Fellows.

"This disturbance could have happened as much as a week ago. No one goes to the old place anymore. Most souls are put down in the churchyard."

"How did you discover the disturbance?"

A villager sometimes climbs the hill to drink. He stumbled upon the opening." Fellows thought for a moment. "Guess the old sot is lucky he didn't stumble in and break his neck."

"Who does the grave belong to?"

"It belongs to Mary Rose Singleton. She's been dead for nearly a hundred years. You might've heard the story."

"No, but I'm sure I'm about to," Basham said. "Have a seat, Constable. It's a bit early for spirits, but I'll bring in a pot of tea to keep your vocal chords lubricated whilst you enlighten me."

It wasn't too early for spirits of the ethereal kind, as it turned out. Mary Singleton was somewhat of a legend in the region. For those who liked ghost stories, she was a perfect revenant. She'd been betrothed to a British officer who'd sailed to America to fight in the War of 1812 and promptly gotten himself killed at the Battle of New Orleans. Mary had been so distraught over the news she poisoned herself with hemlock.

"Poor woman. Legend has it she'd been seen staring out one of her windows for days at a time, pining away for her officer. She would occasionally whirl about the room as if dancing with him, but knowing she was never again to be swept up in his loving embrace." Fellows offered his soliloquy as if he'd known her personally.

Small towns like their stories as much as their gardens and canned preserves, so rumors about Mary occasionally wandering the countryside in search of her lost love played well. Basham could guess that the tale grew new appendages with each telling. So now her remains, or what was left of them, had joined her wraith and given the old tale new life, so to speak. No apparent clues as to who might have exhumed the body were found at the gravesite. As strange as it may seem, grave-robbing was not a specific crime, but the incident would certainly jangle the nerves of those who'd spent the better part of their lives listening to stories about the woman who'd risen from the grave in search of her dashing officer.

Basham agreed to climb the hillside and have a look. He asked to go alone so he could think without useless questions from Fellows. The old cemetery rested on the side of a hill too steep to farm. There was a pleasant view of the isolated town below with its church steeple rising above the elms and the oaks. There were no fences or signs to sequester the graveyard from the outside world. All that remained among a few empty whiskey bottles and weeds were a hundred or so old stones to mark locations of final repose. Whoever tended the graves of these souls must have been long dead. Maybe superstition played a role given Mary's legend, for Basham knew most of the locals had little to do except repeat gossip, even if it was one-hundred years old.

Mary Rose Singleton's headstone was simple with no ostentatious words of scripture or poetic sentiment, just her name and dates of birth and death, and one curious engraving. Seek no longer the beloved, it read, so forlorn, so sad and final those words and dates, nothing more to come, nothing more to add. Basham guessed the desecration was only a day or two old for the dirt clods still held moisture. Remnants of the burial casket remained. He didn't dare descend into the hole for fear that what remained would give way under his weight. Instead, he got on his hands and knees for a better look.

The lid's hinges in rotted wood had broken easily, giving access to the corpse. Small traces of clothing could be seen in the bottom of the box, but had deteriorated to the point of near nonexistence. Basham guessed Mary's bones were held together by no more than a few remnants of leathery skin. He saw nothing that would give any indication as to whom the robber might be, but felt sure it wasn't merely a ghoulish prank by youngsters. The thief had been careful about not leaving footprints or other clues.

The day darkened. Basham shivered as the breeze ruffled his hair and whispered against his exposed skin. The trees swayed gracefully like dark ballerinas moving to a rhythm only they could hear. It occurred to him that all of us, the living and the dead, had shared the same wind, trees, and the elements of nature. We came from the same earth and our roots always reached down into it.

The village had only one church, but five pubs; a sign of the times. Basham stopped in one of them to shake the haunting feeling his visit to the cemetery had inspired. He was surprised to discover the constable and his men had managed to keep the latest news out of the pubs this long. He would congratulate Fellows at the next opportunity.

Basham recalled his stop in a Whitechapel pub after thwarting an attempt on Mr. Pippin's life. On that occasion, he'd seen the truth of the murders as clearly as if they had been tea leaves floating in his pint of ale. He hoped for such a revelation again, but his arthritis had kicked up suggesting a hot bath might be of more benefit than drink. He limped out of the pub and turned toward his cottage thinking about the Mary Singleton legend. He looked upon the mystery of her missing body as a macabre game. It was a puzzle to assemble, a project to complete.

He reported his observations, or lack thereof, to Fellows, but he was titillated by who might want to commit such an abomination as to take the remains of the local legend. On his own, Basham decided to take an indirect route. He rented a carriage and visited the region's Hall of Records where he researched the Singleton family history. As far as he could determine, there were no Singletons living in the area, but he also discovered the family name of the British officer. It was Musgrove. And at least one Musgrove appeared to be currently residing in the village.

The next day, Basham sought out the residence of Mr. Jeremy Musgrove. The cottage was on the edge of town as well, not terribly far from the hillside cemetery. No one answered the door, so Basham proceeded to the nearest residence and tapped on its door. A tomcat eyed him with suspicion and then rubbed against his legs. A round-face child looked out a window and studied Basham with equal trepidation.

"Muuum!" the child bellowed and disappeared. The door finally opened as an equally round-faced woman appeared with the child clinging to her skirt. The tom, seizing his opportunity, disappeared past everyone's feet into the domicile's sanctuary.

Basham removed his hat. "Good day, Madam," he said with a reserved smile.

"What do you want?"

"If I might have a word; I'm trying to locate your neighbor, a Mr. Musgrove," he said pointing to the cottage up the road. "Do you know where I might find him?"

"Are you the police?"

"No, no. Just a friendly visit."

The woman shrugged her shoulders as the child yanked at her skirt. She looked at the cottage next to hers as if Musgrove might suddenly appear. "A strange one, he is," she said as much to herself as to Basham.

"How so?"

"Comes in and out at all hours. Stays to himself. Sometimes we hear him singing. Not a bad voice mind you, but it disturbs the little ones."

Basham waited for more, but the woman only stared at him with suspicion. Then he said, "Has he lived there for long?"

"He come down from London about a year ago, I'm thinkin'. A writer, he said he was. Working on a chronicle of England's history, or some such, not that the subject of serfs and Kings ain't been done enough. We've barely exchanged a word since, just a wave now and then."

The child had become bored and disappeared along with the cat. Basham didn't ask the woman if she'd heard about the disappearance of Mary Singleton's remains. He wasn't sure how far information of the current atrocity had traveled and didn't want to unnecessarily alarm the citizenry.

"Thank you for your time, Madam. I'll try to contact the gentleman another time."

The woman looked Basham up and down and her eyes widened. "You're the one what cuffed Mr. Donovan, ain't you?"

Why deny it. "At your service."

"But you said you weren't a policeman."

"Retired. Just an ordinary citizen now."

"Ordinary, my arse. What you got on this Musgrove?"

Basham realized he would have to make a concession to keep this woman still. "The gentleman has lost a relative in London," he whispered conspiratorially. "He's quite possibly in line for a rather nice inheritance. I want to break the news quietly, you understand. I must ask for your discretion in this matter."

"Oh, yes Sir, of course, Sir. Mums the word."

"That's the ticket. Again, thank you for your time."

In a village this size, most people knew each other's habits, or thought they did. But someone relatively new to the area such as Musgrove could be more autonomous. The woman stood in the doorway and watched as Basham walked away until a child started crying somewhere within the house. He knew the dust would not settle under his feet before the house-frau would be jabbering to her friends, but at least it wouldn't concern his true intention — to find out what the most recent in a long line of Musgroves might know of Mary Rose Singleton's disappearance.

On his way home, Basham saw a cloaked figure standing far up the road. Maybe it was the ominous starkness of a woman alone, or her posture, but he felt a knot of disquiet. The figure stood rigid and motionless until her head titled slightly as if puzzling over his approach, a vision that injected a chill of foreboding. He considered walking the extra distance to where she stood, but he no sooner had the thought than the woman turned and walked into a wooded area, practically vanishing before his very eyes. Was it Mary, freed from her dark one-hundred-year-old tomb? Eyewitnesses to an event were notoriously unreliable. Was he beginning to see things as well?

That evening, Basham sat amidst the comforts of the few personal items he'd brought with him from London. He sipped a brandy and listened to his grandfather clock chime away the quarter hours while pondering what little he'd discovered about both Mary Singleton and Jeremy Musgrove, and content in the knowledge that Fellows had no reason to intrude upon his contemplation.

He felt sure the descendent of Mary's betrothed was the most likely to shed light on his investigation. He planned to pay Mr. Musgrove a nighttime visit once it was late enough to catch him at home.

* * *

Basham saw a light in the cottage as he approached. Reaching the door, he also heard the singing. He believed it a ditty from one of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas. When he knocked, the singing abruptly stopped.

"Who's there?" said a voice within.

"Mr. Basham."

"State your business."

"It concerns your family tree, Sir"

"My what?"

"If I could just have a word. It won't take but a moment."

The door opened far enough for the two men to take the measure of one another. Jeremy Musgrove was a handsome lad Basham guessed to be in his late twenties. If was also clear he didn't want a stranger inside his lodging. The young man stepped out of the cottage and spoke from there. "Well?"

"I understand you moved here from London not so long ago. I too, left the city and am glad of it. Have you enjoyed your time here?" It was just idle chatter intended to make Musgrove more comfortable.

"Yes, I like it here very much."

"So do I. You don't have the privilege of fresh air in the city."

"I say, did you come to talk about nature, or is there something else."

"As a matter-of-fact, it came to my attention that you have roots here. Your forbearers came from here. I guessing that history enticed you back."

"What if it did?"

Time to get to the point. "There was an occurrence in the old cemetery only a few nights ago I believe you can shed some light on. A grave was disturbed. The grave of a woman who has a history attached to her name. Your long lost relative was — "

Musgrove held up his hand. "I know the story only too well."

"Are you willing to tell it to me, filling in the current details? I can see you're a fine lad, and if I can find out what happened, it may save official intervention."

"Come in, Mr. Basham."

* * *

Most people want to share their secrets no matter how dark, giving the right circumstance. This was the case with young Musgrove. Although raised in London, he'd been fascinated by the stories his family weaved about his ancestry, especially the tale about his great-uncle going off to war across the ocean and the love he'd left behind. His family had made ghosts, or stories thereof, an integral part of their lives.

These tales were fodder for a lifetime interest in history and genealogy. Interest in Jeremy's family tree remained undiminished and eventually brought him to the little village he and Basham now shared. Fancying himself a future novelist, he managed to purchase a house where he could work with words in relative solitude. Having succumbed to the lure of the most interesting branch of his family tree, his mission was to investigate a tale he had first heard on his grandmother's porch.

With this history as a backdrop, he bade Basham take a chair. As for himself, he wasn't ready to sit. Instead, he paced back and forth across the room while Basham followed his moves as it he were watching a slow moving tennis match. Jeremy Musgrove's story continued thusly:

"Several months after moving into this cottage, I began to see Mary. The sightings were usually as dusk approached, not the time of day one prefers to see a strange apparition nearing the house like some impoverished waif wanting to be taken in. With each sighting, she came closer. Mary must want inside the house, I thought, while at the same time I worried that her desires might be sinister. Judging by her hooded appearance that simulated The Grim Reaper himself, maybe she wanted someone to replace my great uncle. Could some malevolent force want to stretch forth its tentacles around me in a supernatural embrace? Could her goal be, God help me, possession?"

Basham's face involuntarily twitched because the description the young man had given was eerily similar to the person he'd seen alongside the road.

"I must confess I've never been lucky at love. My opportunities have never quite equaled my aspirations. Love, for me, is some mystic, heavenly rapture I've never quite achieved. Through many depressing days and lonely nights with unanswered prayers and unrealized dreams, I have never found a suitable mate. In recent years, I've shied away from entanglements." Jeremy stopped pacing long enough to consider his words. "Given these visitations, I couldn't help but wonder if Mary was still wandering between the finite and eternity, still hungering from her loss." Then his pace quickened, his arms enveloping his torso as he strode from one side to the room to the other.

"You must understand my emotions had turned topsy-turvy. I tried to write, tried to launch myself into another world, but nothing worked. My mind focused in one direction alone, toward Mary. Finally every creak sounded like a footstep. I could almost hear a shuffling at the front door. If I closed my eyes for a moment, all would be well, but still I wondered if a preordained dance summoned by a historical choreography kept me tied to a power that was asserting itself from beyond the grave.

"Then came the evening when I sensed some extraordinary event was about to take place. I didn't dare look out the window for fear I might see something other than the ivy creeper against the windowpane, some shadowy, pallid figure peering in. I attempted to guide my thoughts elsewhere. If I fell asleep, I felt certain I would feel a hand on my shoulder. Could this whole business conclude with my sanity slipping away? The fabric of my life was tearing apart like rotted silk and I seemed powerless to stop it. A creak in a floorboard told me Mary was near. She was lingering in the darkness. Was I about to feel the coldness of dead lips on my flesh as if touched by her from the grave, or something more spectacular like skeletal fingertips hooking into my flesh and pulling me into some unimaginable place where my very soul would be imprisoned. If I had entered Mary's coffin, the atmosphere could not have been more oppressive. Every sight and thought seemed charged with sinister suggestions and an unpleasant tendency toward the macabre. Lying in bed in the dark, a desperate compulsion to do something rose in me. A strange notion engulfed me, one that could not be banished. I wanted no more nights forfeited to the unknown and decided what I must do."

Basham was entranced by young Musgrove's story. He knew what he was about to be told would add to Mary's legend beyond anyone's imaginings, and he too had become a follower.

Musgrove continued. "Before Mary had the opportunity to take control I decided to remove my curtain of fear by paying a nocturnal visit to the hillside cemetery. I half expected to see Mary's spectral presence standing next to the stones observing my actions with a desperate yearning for that which had been taken from her. I labored at my task of unearthing Mary until I finally heard the sound of my shovel splintering wood. I scraped away as much dirt as I could for fear the lid would collapse under my weight and make a mess of Mary. I knocked the corroded lock loose and opened the lid on creaky hinges that broke off after a mere foot of stress.

"Pushing the lid aside, I beheld what was left of the body, which wasn't much. Mary's apparition had certainly been more recognizable than her remains. Her bones would have fallen apart if not for the few strips of parchment-like skin. With her body freed to rejoin her spirit, I felt exorcised. I'd done what Mary wanted, for the time being. Then I carried her over my shoulder down the hill," Jeremy said matter-of-factly. "I'm telling the truth, Mr. Basham."

"Of course you are." Basham realized he'd been holding his breath. He also realized the most interesting part of the story was yet to come. In a voice, soft yet steady as a mountain, the same coaxing voice he'd used on suspects for years, he asked, "Where is Mary now?"

Musgrove sighed purposefully. "Confucius says there's wisdom in patience. I'm waiting for Mary to tell me what to do next." He stood and motioned Basham should do the same. He led the inspector into a bedroom that faced in the direction of the hillside graveyard. A figure sat at the window, curtains parted slightly.

"There's a book I plan to write once the story concludes," Musgrove said. "Once our travail is complete. She's journeyed beyond the veil of death and found a place here at the window, earthbound again in body, sort of. It's not as if she can have the joy of life, but she can at least sit and survey the land she and her soldier were familiar with."

Basham approached the figure at the window. With a little ingenuity using wire and adhesive, it hung together pretty well. She was adorned in a simple dress, for modesty's sake.

"Now I can talk to her every day about this, that, or the other," Jeremy was saying. "That is something at least — having the company of a man who is in one piece. She's had to endure a century without company. I sing or whistle a tune now and then thinking she might appreciate music."

Jeremy's obsession with this legend had driven him quite mad. No doubt about that.

Seek no longer the beloved. The inscription on Mary's tombstone seemed hollow for Musgrove had seen to it that, with his help, her search had not concluded. Jeremy was convinced she was beckoning him to become her lover in her officer's place. Although her eye sockets were as empty as her grave, he believed she could see. Mary, the new mistress of his cottage was now in control.

For good or ill, no matter how bizarre the behavior, there was always a motive for every action. That's not to say they are rational; they usually aren't. Somewhere Basham had read it wasn't true the insane thought themselves sane. They often didn't fight their affliction because there were pleasures and beauty in madness. Basham would try and see to it that young Musgrove was provided comfortable accommodation back in London where his illness could be treated. His separation from Mary Rose Singleton would be difficult, but like most obsessive relationships, the path to perfection seldom runs true.

But what of Basham's own observations? The chill of the cemetery? The woman up the road? In the end, he decided he'd become much too impressionable in his old age for his own good.


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

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 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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