THE KEY FACTOR
A prequel to the investigations of Inspector Basham
By J. T. Seate
Edgar Basham began his professional life wanting to become a horticulturist which involved pulling something out of the earth other than dead and mutilated bodies. He landed a position in a botanist’s laboratory while studying textbooks. He took delight in identifying flora. He kept any number of plants in his small third floor rented room in Mrs. Billingham’s boarding house. She was a widow who could be starchy at times, but stayed out of the way of her boarders for the most part.
The building was a modest establishment, certainly nothing to attract the upper-crust. Being a great admirer of Diogenes, Basham liked the old lantern that hung over its entrance. He found his room comfortable and just far enough from London’s main thoroughfares to be relatively quiet. To his knowledge, the only excitement the old building had ever witnessed was when a woman of questionable virtue had fallen from the second floor stoop, down the stairs, and into the foyer, drunk and minus her knickers, according to Mrs. Billingham. Which tenant had been entertaining the woman remained a mystery, for when Mrs. Billingham appeared to offer aid the woman stumbled out the door cursing like a longshoreman. This event occurred before Basham took up residence, but he could not help but wonder if the missing knickers ever turned up.
More recent excitement occurred with the arrival of the young Miss Elizabeth McGowan. She had come from Yorkshire to live in a first floor apartment with her aunt. She and Basham had exchanged no more than salutations when passing until one particular afternoon. As the light filtered through the windowpanes of Basham’s room darkened by sleety rain, a reluctant tapping at his door disturbed the peace of dusk. He deduced that a woman stood on the far side. It was most unusual for him to have callers of either sex.
He answered. The slight form of Miss McGowan stood at his threshold. Getting to know fellow residents was a difficult proposition since Mrs. Billingham did not provide meals for her boarders as was the custom in most boarding houses. Basham bade Elizabeth enter, she advanced slowly with tentative steps, her eyes both shy and probing. She was covered from head to toe in a brown dress that matched her hair of eyes. She possessed a mousy sort of face, but cute with a sprinkle of freckles dotting the bridge of her nose and cheeks. Basham figured her age at perhaps twenty-three, near his own.
“My auntie has gone missing,” she said in a rush of words.
“Why come to me, Miss McGowan?”
“Please call me Elizabeth. Mrs. Billingham says you are good at finding things.”
“A hairpin or a shilling laying on the street, perhaps.”
She said you spotted a weed among her spring bloomers that could have ruined her flower bed.”
“Well, I am studying to be a horticulturist. You should contact the authorities.”
“I think she might have run away with some man. Maybe taking me in has ruined her freedom.”
“I’m sure your presence is not a disturbance to anyone.” Basham produced a shy smile. “And I might add that you have brightened up this rather drab establishment considerably.”
She made a funny face in the gaslight glow as she plowed ahead. “Please come to our lodgings and see if you can find a clue, something that might indicate if she left voluntarily or…”
Basham thought the matter a bit silly, but welcomed the opportunity to see inside the rooms inhabited by women. “Is now a good time?”
“Yes, please. I’m at my wits end.”
Basham and Elizabeth trundled down two levels to the main floor and entered the apartment. It dazzled with too many floral patterns for his tastes. But then, he had not come as an interior decorator. He really had no idea as what to look for, so while Elizabeth stood by wringing her hands, he puttered about peering into drawers and inside cabinets feeling ridiculous.
“Was your aunt seeing anyone that you know of?”
“I’m at a flower shop in Piccadilly most days. I’ve gained employment as a shop girl in an attempt to earn my keep. I soon hope to find my own—”
He cut her off. “Do you know how she spent her time, Elizabeth?
“Not really, but she often said she missed the companionship of men.”
Basham placed his thumb and forefinger against his chin trying to look authoritative, but having no idea of what to do next. He was about to provide her with a few comforting words when he glanced up. A small brown spot no larger than a coin adorned the ceiling of the parlor. At first he thought it to be the innards of squashed bug, but was too circularly formed for that.
Mr. Musgrave, the jeweler, lives above you, does he not?” Basham asked.
“Yes,” Elizabeth answered, puzzled.
“Has your aunt ever visited him, to your knowledge?”
“Why yes. She took her broken timepiece to him. Since he is a jeweler, she reasoned that he could repair it.”
“I will have a talk with Mr. Musgrave.”
“You don’t think…?”
“No, just a chat. I will be in touch with you, Miss…er…Elizabeth.”
By the time he returned to his flat the day was done. Shadows flickered on the walls from gaslights until he shut them off. He knew it would be a restless night for the sight of Elizabeth scurrying around her flat had awakened memories of Beatrice, his first and last love. Dreams ordinarily come unbidden, but at the twilight of consciousness, Basham hoped for a pleasant dream about what might have been.
* * *
As a young man, he had been in love with a young woman whom he considered so perfect she seemed otherworldly. She possessed the ability to make you believe she thought you the most fascinating person on God’s earth. Alas, she married another, a man who chose to become a solicitor and dig his hands into other’s affairs rather than dirt. The loss grabbed Basham’s heart and snapped it in two. He had never tried to love again, but chose rather to spend his days and nights trying to become the most knowledgeable horticulturist in London.
* * *
Basham knew little about the jeweler other than the fact that he was middle-age and had practiced his craft for many years. Unlike Elizabeth timid knock, Basham rapped firmly on Musgrove’s door.
“Who’s there?” a raspy voice called out.
“It’s Edgar Basham from the floor above. Might I have a word with you?”
The door was unlocked and opened only far enough to see the man’s very recognizable countenance. Mr. Musgrove had beady eyes set in a hawkish face that also possessed a beak-like nose and a clinched jaw of the humorless. Basham could easily picture the man hunched over a counter with a jeweler’s glass in one eye studying the nature of precious stones. He came and went from the boarding house most mornings without fanfare, only grunting at Basham during their rare encounters.
He observed Basham with chilly disdain. “What is it?”
“Pardon the intrusion, Sir, but we seemed to have a bit of a mystery. Miss McGowan’s aunt, Miss Littlejohn, has not been seen for two days. Elizabeth mentioned her aunt had seen you about repairing her clock. I was asked to inquire—”
“The woman left the clock. She has not returned.”
“Can you tell me when—”
“She was informed that I would have a look when time permitted. I’m not a watchmaker after all, or in the business of repairing timepieces.”
“I see,” Basham offered. “Well, if you think of anything helpful, please share it with Elizabeth, or my—”
Musgrove closed the door abruptly in Basham’s mid-sentence. “How rude,” he whispered to himself while staring at the door’s peeling lacquer. He walked downstairs to ask Elizabeth if there was any news. She shook her head and invited him in for a sherry. He declined the drink but ask her to indulge him with a strange request. Afterwards, he climbed the two flights to his own apartment pondering his next move. He hadn’t had the pleasure of happy dreams the night before and feared any dream he might now have would concern that damned spot. He could not get the ceiling stain out of his mind and the circumstances were intriguing. He was determined to pursue the conundrum concerning Elizabeth’s aunt.
* * *
Most everyone in the building left early in the morning to follow their pursuits. Without providing any specifics for the request, Basham asked Elizabeth if he might utilize her apartment one morning. She agreed but stipulated that it must be on a day she was not working at the flower shop. The result was a scene that looked like high comedy for on the following Tuesday, Basham stood behind Elizabeth’s door peeking through a slight opening, waiting to see Musgrave pass by, Elizabeth waiting in the wings, as it were.
“Do you play chess, Edgar?”
“Yes, but I have little time for such amusements.”
“Oh yes. The plants of the world need your undivided attention.”
Elizabeth was now friendly enough to tease and to make occasional suggestions. “Let me trim your hair, Edgar. It would be my pleasure, and my duty, I think,” she blathered with a little chuckle. “You must keep a neat and trim look as a proper professional.”
He momentarily turned away from his vigil to look at her. He supposed she was flirting with him, temporarily suspending her worry about Auntie’s sudden departure. There was a scent of lavender sachet about her. She was dressed informally, down from multiple layers to what looked like only undergarments beneath chiffon giving her a wispy appearance as if she might glide through a darkened mansion in the middle of the night looking for vaporish ghosts. His mind toyed with the image of freckles scattered along the tops of her breasts, a match to those on her face, a vision that bore a bit of libidinous magic. It must be pure pleasure for a woman when she did not have to dress for the day, he mused.
“Who’s to say I wish to be proper?” he eventually answered
It was good to see her laugh, and the idea of her hands touching gently, tenderly. It wasn’t the first time physical contact with her had crossed his mind.
He turned back to the crack in the doorway just in time to see Musgrave come downstairs and leave the building. Basham opened the door wider to make sure no one else was coming or going. It would not do to be seen leaving the Littlejohn residence at this hour of the morning. He then entered the foyer. He watched as the jeweler climbed on a horse-drawn streetcar, more than likely going to his shop. To avoid Elizabeth’s desire to follow him, he gave her the task of intercepting Mrs. Billingham should she decide to come upstairs.
“When are you going to tell me what this is all about, Edgar?”
“As soon as there is something to tell,” he answered. “If you see Mrs. Billingham or anyone else headed for the stairway, make some of that small-talk ladies so enjoy. For a few minutes anyway. Can you do that?”
“Only if you will explain yourself when you return,” she said stubbornly.
“Certainly,” he lied. It came easier than he expected.
He climbed the staircase to the second floor and walked to Musgrave’s door. He carried a small metal tool in his breast pocket used to aerate the soil surrounding a plant. Making sure no one was in the hallway, he poked one of the tines into the lock face and fished around until the tumblers gave way. He hastily entered the sanctum and closed the door behind him. Being a fellow bachelor, Musgrave’s furnishings were nothing spectacular, but certainly more decorative than his own sparsely appointed room. After a cursory search of the premises, he had found nothing that would lend itself to scrutiny. He then paced off the distance that would bring him to the proximity of the stained ceiling below. He examined the area of the floor finding that a two-foot area had recently been scrubbed.
Basham had always possessed a talent beyond finding things. He also had a keen intuition and it told him to investigate further—in the cellar this time. This sixth sense, as some might call it, could have sent him into the street to hail a Bobby, but his hunch had no supporting evidence at this point.
He cracked open Musgrave’s door. The coast appeared to be clear as he crept into the hallway and closed the door behind him. With conspiratorial thoughts dancing in his head, he turned to find Mrs. Billingham standing at the head of the stairs.
“Whatever are you doing in Mr. Musgrave’s apartment, Edgar Basham?” Her hackles were up.
Blood drained from Basham’s face. “He left it unlocked. Ask me to have a look at a sickly plant.”
The prickly woman stomped in his direction. “He has no plants,” she said sternly. “As the proprietor of this house, I should know.”
Trapped like a rat in a trap, Basham was surprised when his accuser’s mood suddenly seemed to lighten. “You’re an awfully inquisitive young man.” Her expression held more than irony, but less than scorn. “You think he had something to do with Mrs. Littlejohn’s disappearance?”
“I don’t know, but I beg you to keep this indiscretion to yourself for the time being.”
“Thank you. And one more favor. Would you let me borrow the key to the cellar?”
“Nothing there but empty crates and baggage form roomers who departed over the years without settling their accounts.”
“Have you loaned the key to anyone of late?”
“You mean Mr. Musgrave. No, only once when he first moved in. He stored a sideboard he wasn’t using. That was years ago.”
“Well then, surely there is no harm in allowing me to take a peek. I have an excess of plant pots I might wish to store.”
She eyed him suspiciously, not buying his scam for a moment. “You’re usually a good lad, Edgar. I suppose….”
“Thank you again.”
They descended the steps to the first floor. She momentarily disappeared into her private confines and returned with the key to the cellar door. “Mind you give it back. Wouldn’t have anyone else rattling around and causing a termite infested beam to crash down on them.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Mind you don’t step in a rat’s nest or the web of a giant spider. Would be a pity to lose another tenant now wouldn’t it?” A creepy grin separated her lips revealing poorly cared for teeth.
“I promise to be on my guard, Madam. I’ll just take inventory of anything I might want to store and get the key returned before day’s end. If you will excuse me.” Basham turned and climbed the two flights of stairs to his room half expecting Mrs. Billingham to follow him.
Her eyes followed him until he turned down the hallway and was out of sight. He listened for the sound of the door to her apartment close before entering his room. “That went well,” he muttered sarcastically to himself.
Mrs. Billingham normally took an afternoon nap and asked tenants not to disturb her between the hours of three o’clock up through tea time. Basham stayed inside his room until half past three thinking of what a poor sentry Elizabeth had proven to be. When he emerged, he walked as quietly as possible down the stairs. He pressed his ear to his landlady’s door and thought he could hear the faint sound of her snoring. He then went to Elizabeth’s door and knocked oh so gently. When she responded, he put a finger to his lips and slipped inside. He was disappointed to find her fully dressed.
“Why did you let Mrs. Billingham come upstairs?”
“I didn’t. She must have heard the floor squeaking above.”
“But Musgrave’s room is over your apartment.”
“She may have been listening to us outside the door earlier. She sometimes hides underneath the stairway. Did you know that?’
“Why should she do that?”
“Who knows why? Elderly people do what they do. All I know is that when she came out of her room, she made for the stars straight away. I had no time to think…”
It’s all right,” Basham sighed.
“Did you find anything?”
“Possibly. I am going to the cellar next. You do not have to act as guard this time. Mrs. Billingham loaned me the key.”
“I am coming with you this time.”
“That would be unwise. It will be horribly dusty and dirty.”
“I’ll bring a lamp. That will free both of your hands while you look about, though I dare not ask what you will be looking for.”
Basham could have said, “Just a hunch,” but that would sound silly and he truly hoped his notion proved to be no more than an imaginative mind gone off its tether. “Two hands might be better than one,” he answered thinking of how fetching Elizabeth had looked in her chiffon.
The twosome walked past the stairway descended another flight of steps. Basham unlocked the creaky old door. If disturbed, he reasoned he could explain Elizabeth’s presence by stating that she wanted to see if her aunt had stored anything in the space.
The cellar was devoid of any illumination. He was a bit queasy about dark enclosures and took the coal-oil lamp from Elizabeth. He bade her to stay by the entrance while he insured that the moldy damp space was safe to explore. The lamp’s flame created garish images on the walls. The floor was earthen, but solid. He felt as if he had entered a crypt, a setting not unlike the bowels of a castle one might find in one of Poe’s gothic tales of horror.
Basham walked to the spot in one corner of the space mindful of Mrs. Billingham’s warnings of nests, webs, and rotted beams. He saw none of those things, but he knew freshly disturbed earth when he saw it. Getting down on his knees, he held the lamp in one hand and brushed away recently tilled dirt with the other. It wasn’t long before his efforts revealed exactly what he feared. Mixed in with the fetid soil was the face of Elizabeth’s aunt, cold and dead. Mercifully, maggots had not as yet found their way to her.
Elizabeth let a muffled scream seep between her fingers. Basham jumped and almost dropped the lamp. He hadn’t heard Elizabeth walk up behind him. She saw what he was seeing. It seemed to be a day for the fairer sex to sneak up on him. He set the lamp down and took hold of Elizabeth turning her away from the horror. Before she could become hysterical, he led her out of the cellar and up the stairs. Mrs. Billingham had heard the commotion and was afoot.
“Madam,” Basham said. “Would you be kind enough to hail a policeman?” The elderly woman’s mouth dropped open. Before it could capture flies, Basham added, “Now, please!”
As she scuttled out of the building, Elizabeth buried her freckles into Basham’s chest and sobbed. He pulled out his breast-pocket kerchief to help stem the tide into which she promptly blew her nose. He held her until Mrs. Billingham returned with two Bobbies.
It was a grisly sight indeed, but Basham was surprised at his calm, not so much different than the discovery of anything else when rooting around in dirt. Although strangled, Elizabeth’s aunt had somehow suffered a gash in her wrist. The sleeve of her blouse was caked in blood with just enough excess to seep between floorboards of Mr. Musgrave’s room and into the ceiling of the parlor below. And it would not surprise Basham if there were not more bodies in the cellar. Musgrave had been in residence for several years after all, an acquired taste perhaps. Too bad Mrs. Billingham hadn’t been hiding under the stairs when Musgrave either hoisted his victim over his shoulder, or dragged the corpus delicti along in the dead of night.
By the time Mr. Musgrove returned home, a virtual army of personnel from Scotland Yard awaited him. He wouldn’t reveal the face behind the mask voluntarily, but it can be strenuous to play a role continually. How easy for a supposed simple jeweler to make a gaffe that would betray himself as he finally gave up the charade.
Mrs. Littlejohn had come to see about the broken clock and the jeweler could not resist the temptation of an unexpected caller with a large bosom. He had bashed her with her own property, waited until the early morning hours to carry her into the cellar with the key made from an impression of the original. Elizabeth’s aunt wasn’t the first of his victims, but in this case, it was a matter of chance taking precedence over the most detailed plan.
“I would have thought him too dull to attack my aunt, let alone…” Elizabeth trailed off.
Basham patted her hand. Her sad bravery touched him. He knew the freckle-face lass felt a connection to him. To some extent, he felt it as well, but what a repugnant experience to try and build on.
“Life is so strange,” she added.
“I would go a step further. I would say it was downright bizarre.”
As soon as her aunt’s affairs were settled, Elizabeth planned to find an apartment of her own away from the terrible scene of her aunt’s demise. She promised Basham he would be her first guest. He placated her with positive epithets but had no plans to allow their relationship to blossom. He would never again play the role of ardent swain. Love for a woman had broken him once and he did not intend to let it happen again.
That evening, within the safe confines of his rented room, Basham recounted the events of the day. He had done all right until he took a final look at the blue and cold corpse of Elizabeth’s aunt. It practically took a worker’s wrench to pry the morbid scene from his mind. He finally accomplished the task by resolutely focusing on more positive images. Elizabeth standing in her layers of chiffon and blathering about chess and his hair. Walking hand in hand through the park with his lost love, and similar recollections of simple joys and calm seas.
Even though his nerves remained steady through the ordeal of the horrid discovery, he knew he would never look at things that rose up from the ground in quite the same way. This was his first experience with violent death, but far from his last. He soon applied for police training and when accepted, quit his job and gave up his studies, but the knowledge gained from his horticultural background proved to be handy after becoming an officer in the service of Her Majesty for Scotland Yard. With his knack for finding things and intuitive nature, he knew he would be successful in the arena of crime detection. He also knew he was unlikely to share his life with another. He would allow himself only the intimacy of despair and the consummation by investigation, choosing to spend his days and nights ignoring the riddle of uncomfortable emotions, an unsolvable task. He would employ these tactics throughout his career with the Yard, all to keep the specter of death at bay.
Basham would have many hunches during his years as an investigator, some blooming like a well-tended plant. He sometimes wondered if evil was, in fact, communicable like a virus passing from one person to the next. It seemed as rational as believing a percentage of society was foreordained to commit horrible acts. Perhaps evil had a psychotic life of its own. These meanderings would trouble him for the rest of his life.
Although he would never admit it, his sorrow was never far away. 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. At least, that was what he hoped for.
J. T. Seate is author of nine stories in the popular Inspector Basham series, including The Key Factor. Previous stories in the series 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), “Winds of Change” (March, 2015) and The Chopper (April, 2015).
Nine of his non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — “The Accomplice” (October, 2015) “The Return” (October, 2015), “Moments To Remember” (June, 2015), “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.
Copyright © 2016 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!