Basham's Theory


By J. T. Seate



Some men looked toward retirement like a capsized sailor might look at a spit of land on the horizon, but Edgar Basham hadn't been one of them. The retired inspector had cultivated a slight paunch from soft living in recent years, but retained the world-weary eyes of a cunning investigator above his salt-more-than-pepper mustache. He maintained his theory that, although God remained an unsubstantiated hypothesis, good and evil most definitely existed. He believed some form of supreme mind was at work through mathematics, and that all humans fell, to a greater or lesser degree, on a continuum. On one end of human endeavor's umbilicus was genius, those men and women who brought light into the world. On the other end, pure evil resided, those who were pre-ordained to do mankind's darkest work. They fulfilled the mathematical fact that for every peacemaker and poet, there was a merciless predator not only waiting, but anxious to commit a miasma of misdeeds.

Basham's village was still recovering from a recent slaying. One of its own, a young lad who'd left for college in London, had been murdered on the streets just beyond the safety of the university's hallowed halls. This news served to validate Basham's theory. The event brought the two ends of the spectrum together in the most unfortunate of ways. A phantom, with his tentacles of merciless compulsion, had brought an end to the star-crossed student's hopes and aspirations. Further, the craven killer had buggered several lads before killing them, and was caught only when one of his planned victims turned out to be a policeman in disguise who'd managed to get the upper hand.

He stood at a window peering through the gloom of the English night, his life of more than thirty years with Scotland Yard still singing a siren's lullaby. On these occasions, Basham wished he was still in the service of Her Majesty, so he couldn't ignore the intriguing coincidence of a message arriving from his old friend, Detective Atchison, asking him to travel back to London. He fought the demon of arthritis as he eased himself into his favorite chair and consummated the evening with a cigar and a brace of brandy, barely able to contain the excitement the letter from London initiated.

* * *

Upon arrival in London, Basham felt as lost as a passenger in a great drifting ship. The city had grown since he'd departed. It teamed with more people scurrying about than ever, so different from the village he now called home. The quick pace supplied a rush of adrenalin not felt in the idyllic countryside. He was not adverse to this rush, once he'd acclimated to it. Atchison had invited Basham to come and give his opinion about a current case. The two men met in the comfort of the Scotland Yard detective's humble domicile.

"What in heaven's name do you do to keep yourself busy these days, Inspector?"

"Just because one lives in a small village doesn't mean he has no interest in books, music, and art. I have plenty of time to fill.

"I remember how you reasoned out that Ellis put a prostitute up to killing his wife's lover," Atchison shared. "I'm in charge of a case in which another prominent man has fallen on the streets."

Years of being witness to some of mankind's more grotesque proclivities had left an indelible stamp on Detective Atchison's face, not to mention a lifetime of pipe smoking and a touch of emphysema. He sat impassively as he spoke, as stiff as the starch in his collar, a characteristic of the old guard. Basham listened quietly anticipating the reason Atchison contacted him over such a common crime as a street murder.

"We've spoken to the man's widow, of course." Atchison hesitated for effect. A long draw on his pipe made the tobacco glow in the bowl. "The victim in question, Inspector, is none other than the notorious Mr. Pippin, the man you once saved from a knife in Whitechapel."

Basham's eyes widened. Atchison enjoyed the reaction. "By jove, Basham, you've still got the bloodhound in you. I can see it in your face. I felt sure you would appreciate this development after that whole Knitting Society business ending with two dead husbands and a bullet in the brain of Ellis and one of the widows."

"It is intriguing."

Atchison laughed and set his pipe aside. "Unless we uncover someone with a motive for harming Mr. Pippin, it might be a murder perfectly executed." He considered what he'd said and added, "Pardon the pun, Inspector."

Executed. The detective may have hit on the optimum word. "There is never perfection," Basham grumbled. "Maybe a debt to be settled."

Atchison's eyebrows rose. "You mean a direct connection to your old case?"

Basham fingered one end of his mustache. "Possibly."

"Your nose was always good at sniffing out the rotten apple. You're welcome to stay here as long as you like and I'll see to it that you receive a consultant fee."

Atchison knew Basham wouldn't refuse. Even though retribution had come to the late Inspector Ellis for orchestrating the death of two men, one for cavorting with his wife. The convoluted case had run parallel to the highly publicized Ripper murders and it still haunted Basham. It had, in fact, hastened his retirement.

"Let me see the police reports," Basham said.

* * *

The following day, he was provided the notes taken by Atchison and canvassing policemen. It was a queer affair to be sure. Pippin had stepped from a carriage in front of his own dwelling, paid the cabbie, and been attacked with a knife before opening his front door. There had been no apparent witnesses. The crime was not for monetary gain for neither Pippin's purse, or his gold watch had been taken. The only clue was the smudge of a man's boot print. From within his flat, Pippin's wife heard nothing except for a disconcerting bump on the outside of their door. Such a vicious crime in the well-tended neighborhood was quite unusual. The perpetrator must have hidden in a blind spot before striking. Further, he, or she, must have known Pippin's routine. Basham thought back to the murders six years earlier. Pippin had escaped possible death once before, but not this time.

The police looked into obvious activities such as gambling debts, but found no evidence of such vices. Basham knew instinctively the earlier murders were related to Pippin's death. The connection just needed to be reasoned out. Was there some uncovered secret amongst the motives of the earlier case? Some unknown person who wanted additional revenge for Pippin's part in the aforementioned drama of deceit and infidelity? The exquisite pathos of contradiction. How ironic that the remnants of the case which hastened Basham's retirement had lured him back to London.

He remembered something the prostitute, Nell Fitzwilly, had uttered the night she attacked Pippin outside Madam Frazzeta's house of comfort. She'd said, "Better to ask the likes of your wife, Luv." Of the four women who had banded together to form the Ladies Knitting Society, only two had been widowed. Of those remaining, only one of the husbands, Jonathan Pippin, had continued to keep late hours. The locations of his revelry would be easy enough to uncover.

"We've interviewed the wife," Atchison had said. "She's a slight little thing, easily intimidated. Can't imagine her orchestrating her husband's murder."

The machinery of justice could be agonizingly slow, but so too could the proper circumstance for revenge. No matter how slight or demure, hadn't The Yard learned one of Basham's favorite epitaphs? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. He knew Mrs. Pippin hadn't committed the act herself. The question was where a proper lady might have run across a scoundrel who would do the job for her.

While Atchison and his men snooped around in the rat's nest of streets that proliferated in the seamier London districts such as Whitechapel, Basham decided to take a more active role than merely looking at reports. Even he could not glean motives and methods from scribbles on paper alone. On the day of Pippin's burial, he watched from down the street as mourners came to pay their respects to the bereaved Mrs. Pippin following services. He counted the number of persons to enter the flat, and counted the number who left.

Among others, he recognized Dudley Morrissey, the sole surviving Knitting Society husband and idly pondered the mindset of the man. A rather mousy creature, Basham would wager he'd spent the better part of the last six years looking over his shoulder, and as much time in his cups as out. While Basham envisioned Mrs. Pippin's hand in her husband's demise, it would gain nothing to plant himself across from her lodgings any longer. If she were involved, she'd be too smart to entertain a conspirator.

Nell was paid by Chief Inspector Ellis to strike down Pippin years earlier. She'd long since left London. Her defense had been well financed and she got off with a minor menacing charge. "She'd slid right out of the devil's hand and moved on over to the Promised Land, Hallelujah," some wag was quoted as saying when the crime went unsolved.

Other than the fact that three of former Ladies Knitting Society husbands were now dead, the men's commonality had been the seeking of pleasure in Whitechapel's brothels. Basham made the decision to revisit Madame Frazzeta's establishment.

To Basham's eye, the reputed palace of pleasure's interior still strove for an air of elegance, but had fallen into shabbiness, showing a few added years of wear and tear, much like the buxom woman who still operated the place. Although Nell Fitzwilly was long gone, the girl to whom she'd been the closest, Polly Bronson, was still in the madam's employ. In large cities, people often found themselves in a dazed, thoughtless life, losing their purpose and their virtue, forced into one form of slavery or another with no one to save them from the darkness. It seemed to be especially true of the women who plied their hopeless trade in Whitechapel. Basham made arrangements to purchase Polly's time if she promised to keep her clothes on and answer his questions.

"A pound is a pound whether you goose me cunny or not, Govn'r," Polly said to Basham with a practiced twist of the head.

In a lifetime of detection, Basham had managed to keep much of his emotion deep within like an impacted wisdom tooth. In spite of Polly's flippancy, she had been innocent once, and he made a point of posing no threat to her. Although his demeanor proved quaintly chivalrous, he adjusted himself a little straighter in his chair as Polly spun a tail of evil doings. During the next hour, Basham discovered that the four husbands had yet another dirty little secret which hadn't come to light when Messieurs Hatch and Bowes were dispatched. It seemed the "gentlemen" occasionally engaged in group sex. Basham's rather large head raised like a bull aroused from a deep slumber when Polly related the story of one such encounter.

One of Madam Frazzeta's chattel disappeared only days before The Ripper began his bloodthirsty rampage. The missing prostitute, Marcia Henniker, would have undoubtedly been thrown into a pile of his possible victims with or without Jack's signature modus operandi if her body had been found. But Marcia merely disappeared and was never accounted for.

Her friend Polly, in spite of her tough occupation, placed a hand upon her forehead — the way one might check a child for fever. "Marcia weren't no illegitimate sprog. She had family hear abouts. I knew something had happened while Marcia entertained the four men."

She also knew the men had paid the madam handsomely for her silence in the matter. Although all the girls were sworn to secrecy, Polly had carried the burden of her poor missing associate long enough. For a few bob, she'd revealed whom Marcia had entertained last. She'd always believed it was the missing girl's family who had somehow found out and done in Hatch and Bowes.

That slant on the demise of the two men did not rattle Basham. He had no doubt about who had been responsible for the murder of the two men six years past, but the news that one of the madam's girls had family, someone who might have saved her from such a profession, surprised him. He was more convinced than ever that the death of Pippin related to those past events.

The number of people to go missing annually in the metropolises of the world would stagger most of their citizenry, but disappearances of young girls in this dubious profession was exceptionally high. Basham imagined the scene: A body carried from the brothel in the dead of night, most likely placed in a carriage, weighted down, and tossed into the Thames, not missed by anyone except her co-workers, or whatever family she might have. Pippin, a man who perhaps deserved the death Basham had thwarted, had finally joined the reaper along with two of his associates.

It was difficult to imagine a time when Madam Frazzeta had been innocent. Further, she was not the type of woman to be intimidated by Basham's implied authority. Nevertheless, armed with this new knowledge of a disappearance, he used all the tactics of non-violent aggression to persuade the madam to identify the dead girl and provide information about any known relatives.

She relinquished a history but informed Basham the establishment had many wealthy recurring customers. "You know well that discretion is a two-way street, Inspector," she said, trying to end the confrontation with levity, her implausibly bright red hair setting atop her head like a nightmarish bird's nest. "No matter how old a man, we can provide him comfort." Her laugh sounded like loose gravel in a tin cup.

"Mores the pity," Basham responded with an edge of condescension in his voice as he turned from the madam to leave.

"Bloody arse'ole," the woman quietly muttered.

With a harrumph, Basham left the building and headed for another. Although hardened to the cruelties one person could inflict upon another, the information about the missing woman had unsettled him. He felt like a child's kite, its tether compromised, flapping wildly in a breeze. An unsolved case from six years ago had segued into a current one, but the puzzle was still missing several pieces. It could be maddening when the answer was staring you in the face, yet you were not seeing it, but problem solving had always been his forte. The more intricate the maze, the more rewarding the solution.

At the Census and Tax Administration, and Hall of Records buildings, Basham determined the dead woman's lodging prior to taking up with Frazzeta was with her parents in a section of London adjacent to Whitechapel. Further investigation revealed her father to be a merchant with a sickly wife at the time of their daughter's disappearance.

Gaslights cast a thick yellow glow through the pressing fog while disheveled, desultory children who should be at home, if they had one, ran to adjacent streets as Basham approached. Night covered the cobblestone streets like a cloud of black ink by the time he found his way to his next stop. It took several raps on the door before he heard the snick of a lock. A man cracked open the door. Basham could smell whiskey and the stench of dried sweat. A streetlamp revealed a balding pate and suspicious eyes. He stared at Basham as if unaccustomed to visitors.

"Well, what is it?" The man appeared to be in his mid-fifties with a still muscular body as no-nonsense as his personality.

"I've come to talk about your daughter, Mr. Henniker. If you'd allow me to — "

"Nothin' to be said."

"I'm more than happy to reimburse you for your time." Basham pulled a leather pouch from his waistcoat pocket.

"Well, Mr. — "

"Basham."

The man looked at Basham with both apprehension and skepticism, but reached for the bag of coins nonetheless. "What's the harm now? My girl's been gone nearly seven years. That's a long time to suffer. Her mother suffered to the end, she did."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd lost your wife."

"She was always sickly, but losin' Marcia was what did her in...in her head."

"How recently did she pass on, if I may ask?"

"Just last month. Now her mother's with her, God rest their souls."

"Seven years of not knowing what happened — "

Mr. Henniker interrupted again. "From the day she left...she'd visit now and then to see her mother and leave a few quid for medicine, but the girl was already lost to that world of shame."

"I can only imagine how difficult it must be, losing Marcia to those who take advantage — "

"Here now, what's this really about?"

"It's about a murdered man, Mr. Henniker. A man who may have deserved his fate, but it isn't for us to decide."

"Them that took my girl, if they was Christians come down from the cross, I'd nail their hides back up if I had the power."

"Certainly." Basham looked from the man's face to his feet. "I notice your boots are rather unusual."

Henniker looked down as if just discovering them for the first time. I think I'm done with answerin' questions, Mr. Bascomb. If you'll kindly take your fancy ways back to wherever... Wait, you're the bloke who saved Pippin in Whitechapel not long after Marcia disappeared. Too bad. He got more time than he deserved."

"Did you kill him, Mr. Henniker?"

"Guess you think I'm some kind of fool. You retired. Put out to pasture..."

While Henniker was talking, Basham removed a heavy sheet of paper from his valise. On the page was the imprint of the boot copied from the one found at the threshold of Mr. Pippin's residence. "Would you mind if I compare this print to the sole of your shoe?"

The man's eyes suddenly grew as large as two egg yokes. Basham wasn't sure if he was about to break down in tears, or become combative. It turned out to be the latter. Henniker's eyes changed from surprise to slits of anger, a cornered man about to launch his rage. He suddenly grabbed hold of Basham's lapels and threw him from the porch onto the rough cobblestones. The vengeful father, from the sanctuary of his home that perhaps held all that remained of his life, attacked Basham with extreme prejudice. He pulled a knife from the back of his belt. He loomed over the fallen man, his chin forward, and his eyes now fiercely cold, his face roiling with defiance. "You should have minded your own business."

The knife glinted in his hand like a silver tooth. It had a scrimshaw handle. Funny, the details one notices at perilous moments, Basham thought. Although surprised by the sudden assault, his faculties were intact enough to raise one arthritic leg and launch a swift kick to his attacker's groin. Henniker stumbled back for a moment, only temporarily put off. He loomed over Basham again and grinned victoriously. "An old curmudgeon like yourself, shouldn't trifle with the likes of me." He raised the knife.

The next thing Basham saw was the flash of a black lacquered club swinging through space. It crashed into the side of Henniker's head. The knife flew from his hand, but the blow didn't bring him down. He staggered sideways.

Standing defiantly behind the assailant was a Bobbie, his arm raised to inflict a second blow. When Henniker moved to recapture his weapon, the officer brought him down with another swing of his nightstick.

Through plain luck, or fate, this was the only time Basham had been taken down. He staggered to his feet and brushed himself off, embarrassed that he'd been overwhelmed so easily even if he was approaching his seventh decade. Detective Atchison was standing nearby as the Bobbie handcuffed Mr. Henniker.

"My dear inspector," the detective said, using colorful adjectives to make his point. "There are very few people on this earth that I have even a limited tolerance for. Fortunately, you are one of them. Once the old war horse trotted out and started to roam, we began keeping an eye on you. Too busy snooping to notice us, I suppose. Lucky for you."

Basham looked into the detective's implacable eyes. "I suppose you are right, Atchison. But where would you be without my wanderlust, still scratching one's hindquarters at headquarters more than likely."

Atchison's stiff upper lip melted into a half-smile. "We're still quite a team, I'd say."

Henniker moaned unintelligibly. The three officers of the law looked down at the perpetrator who had waited a long time to exact his revenge on Pippin, one of the men complicit in the disappearance of his daughter. Under some circumstances, reason and logic seem unattainable. This simple merchant had taken the law into his own hands, an otherwise normal citizen, reaching his tipping point. Little old ladies and little old men occasionally did away with their spouses after years of supposed harmony. Meek bank clerks suddenly embezzled funds, and personalities could completely alter within the confines of a neighborhood pub. Humans were seldom rational. The current look on Henniker's face could best be described as wistful. Basham guessed the man had waited for his wife to die in case he didn't get away with the crime. It had been a wise choice.

"He'll be in need of a solicitor, I suppose," Atchison offered.

A poor fly caught in a web of violence. The man had lost his child at the hands of a few who felt entitlement. If Basham had been a father, he might have acted in a similar manner. The law was the law, however, and Mr. Henniker would do best to plead guilty with extenuating circumstances and hope for leniency.

"The tale entire," Basham murmured.

Detective Atchison looked at the aging ex-compatriot. "You ought to write a text, Inspector. All the cases you've brought to conclusion, including your adventures after leaving The Yard. That open grave business would add a nice touch of the macabre."

Basham harrumphed. "I consider them something far different than adventures. Too many unsolved cases to flap one's wings over. I'd rather keep my interpretations to myself."

There was no counter-comment from men who had a great deal to think about, but little more to say.

World-wise and world-weary, Basham departed the city once more leaving behind a case devoid of a happy ending, something that was all too rare. He knew himself not to be a misogynist, but he did question why he was so quick to suspect Pippin's wife of being behind the murder. Perhaps he'd merely read Macbeth too many times. An unwritten law in murder cases was to look at family members first. This case had verified that edict, but the missing puzzle pieces came from a dead woman's family rather than that of Pippin's.

It was back to the countryside for Basham, leaving the city with a smile of singular bleakness. Exposed once more to the corruption that large melting pots could breed, he was content to return to the village that had been home for a half decade. While in London, he'd been reminded of the old axiom that one could never take life for granted, however secure you might feel yourself to be. Whenever he thought about the excitement involving foot-to-crotch combat in the street with Mr. Henniker, he couldn't suppress a slight smile, mostly hidden beneath his bristly mustache.

The slow pastoral pace of his current home would remain so until another unseemly local event made him all too aware that no place on earth was immune to violence.


J. T. Seate is author of the popular Inspector Basham stories. Three previous Inspector Basham stories have been published online at omdb! — "Turn About" (November, 2012) and "Letting Off Some Steam" (June, 2013) and "The Case of the Open Grave" (October, 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 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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