WINDS OF CHANGE
By J. T. Seate
A woman staggers from a dark wall onto a street. Her face is contorted with terror. Her steps are uneven from the beating she’s taken. Her tormentor appears from around the corner of the building in pursuit. He is holding a long knife. The woman tries to run, but the man grabs her by the hair and pulls her head back so he can slash her throat. She manages a scream as she struggles to get away, temporarily breaking free, leaving a handful of her hair torn out by their roots. But the man slashes out at her, ripping open the back of her dress and the skin beneath. Blood sprays the attacker who grabs one of her arms. She screams again. With murderous eyes, the man slams the woman against a brick wall as the knife rises in a flashing arc and comes down, the blade plunging into her chest, finishing his grisly deed. The woman drops to her knees like a puppet cut free of its strings, screaming no longer. The man seems to admire his handiwork before walking calmly away, the sound of his boot heels fading, leaving nothing but unnatural death behind.
Basham’s lips puckered with a quizzical ellipse. He was visually filling in the blanks in the charwoman’s account of murder as he walked from the local precinct. Slowed by arthritis, he still made it his business to exercise his aching bones when they permitted. He was involved in this ugly murder only because the victim had been someone he’d known, someone who had, in fact, been inside his domicile on one extraordinary occasion. The situation placed his rule of having no emotional attachment to a victim to the test, even though it wasn’t necessarily one of sadness. The dead woman was none other than Polly Bronson, the prostitute turned flower girl, turned murderer’s apprentice. Basham had always believed the woman to be a walking time bomb, and that his own safety was compromised as the result. His attempt at having Polly jailed for her part in the death of his former neighbor and Polly’s dowager, Felicia Dobbins, had failed.
At Polly’s funeral, Basham stood at the rear of the small gathering amidst old stones that stood like crooked teeth protruding from the gums of uneven earth. He did not view the remains. He had seen enough death in his time. Judging by comments, the mortician had successfully transformed the empty shell into a life-sized sleeping beauty. Basham suffered through a pastor’s business about the Good Lord lifting up this faithful soul with his mighty hand and welcoming her into a golden mansion of many rooms. The attempt to lay peaceful words over a horrible event certainly worked at some level, like placing curtains over the starkness of a bare window. But having been an inspector, cynicism was part of his bone marrow, and he was present only to study those in attendance at graveside and at the gathering that would assemble at Polly’s flower shop afterward. A killer often enjoyed playing the mourner.
While observing attendees at the wake, Basham was surprised to see the formidable Madam Frazzeta, the keeper of a rather notorious comfort house from which Polly had emerged several years earlier. When she and Basham’s eyes met, he lifted a glass of spirits in acknowledgement. A wry smile of the former adversary creased the woman’s face. Basham couldn’t help but wonder if the woman was in attendance to pay her respects to a former employee, or trying to drum up a little business. Seeing her made Basham think of a second past employee — Ralph Lamont, Polly’s former partner in crime. Basham had done a rather shoddy job of keeping track of the two after vowing to bring the culprits to justice for their former transgressions. Ralph had disappeared some time ago, and Polly was dead. Turn about was fair play, perhaps.
Seeing little to raise suspicion, or to even tickle the intuitive funny monkey at the base of Basham’s neck, the retired inspector ambled along the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields where mysterious incidents could occur at any hour of the day or night. It was the part of London where Jack the Ripper had plied his deadly trade a dozen years earlier. Although science had taken root on the times, superstition still dwelt in dark corners of civilization. It was in such places as this where evil thrived, narrow streets consisting of towering structures that leaned inward like great sleeping beasts, enveloping the cobblestones below allowing only minimal sunlight to find the buildings coated with industrial soot. The areas were bleak and suggestive; hauntingly dreary, built on decades of despair caught between a squalid past and the dawning of the Twentieth Century, a place where acts of sexuality or savagery could easily be performed in the dimness between blind corners.
Thus Basham walked, surveying
the passers-by with curiosity
and with the gravity only known to a man who had devoted his life to
investigations and detection. He wasn’t at all sure mankind was up to
that industrialization promised. Could a new century give birth to a
for hate, or create such monstrous weapons that making war would be
Basham doubted either possibility. Man’s nature would forever have a
for both morbid superstition and conquest, his nature malignant and
inescapable. Cruelty, ignorance, and greed would always rule. The walls
misunderstanding that divide one man from another would continue to
best of human intentions, he feared. Whether belief was celebrated in
cathedrals of Europe or in
No, his métier would forever be a necessity unless mankind found a way to obliterate itself. There was nothing to do but wait and watch for the next local crime to be solved, or for some apocalyptic event that no amount of sleuthing could cure.
Upon arriving home, the Scottish Terrier, Bobbins, greeted Basham with a yip and a wagging tail, succeeding in taking his mind away from dour thoughts. Basham divested himself of the heavy topcoat and built a fire. His mind, occupied for the entire day by the bloody murder of Polly Bronson, took respite in the warmth of the fireplace of his bachelor flat, along with the choice bottle of claret at his elbow and Bobbins at his feet.
In front of the fire’s glow,
his thoughts traveled to the
village he’d left behind to return to the sprawl of London with all its
and its glories. Memories of the
A man stood at the door. An indefinable terror hung about his personage like a mist. “Inspector Basham?’
“Mr. Basham now, retired.”
“May I have a word with you?”
“What is it you wish to share, Mr. Donnish?”
“Well, I knew right off Polly wasn’t the usual sort you find in the pubs along the river. She had a bit of pomp about her. It was easy to be drawn in by her charms.” The man then rose from his chair and began to pace. “The fact of the matter is I didn’t want to go to the police for reasons I hope you’ll understand.”
“Get to the point,” Basham wanted to demand, but he knew what sort of man to push and what sort to allow a tale to spin out at its own pace.
“What sort of information?”
Basham remembered the time he himself had been pursued by the aforementioned Mr. Lamont on Polly’s behalf. Turn about.
“I left her company last night before she was killed. If the authorities knew she and I had a er…relationship, they would surely consider me a suspect, you see.”
His story needed no
confirmation. The man himself was the
embodiment of proof. Many Zen Buddhists believed that sometimes a bad
happens to prevent a worse thing. Although Basham’s goal had always
been to see
a guilty person convicted, not to experience an epiphany concerning
politics, he could not help thinking about the many lads lost in the
People claimed they had died nobly for a great cause. What good came
wars eluded him. There were again rumblings across Europe between
weaponry production continued to become more sophisticated. He wondered
many years might pass before the inevitable, but for now, considering
tender-box all of
“So you believe she was murdered by someone who was onto her game, someone who believed she was a threat to national security rather than the victim of everyday crime on the streets?”
“If we are truly honest, we can’t say, ‘I know how you feel’ to another because we’re all different. We are drawn to one thing or another as reliably as iron to a magnet. Espionage is a black business, especially when murder becomes the payoff. I can’t promise that you won’t be brought into this some way and perhaps questioned, but for now, your information is safe with me.”
“I’ll take my leave then.”
“One final question. Did Polly ever mention the woman who left her the flat and the flower shop…Ms. Dobbins?”
“Only that she, Polly that is, had been on the straight and narrow until hoodwinked by this Lamont character. Not long after she inherited the flower shop, he had taken whatever profit he could get his hands on, and then left the city to go who knows where and do who knows what. In an unguarded moment, Polly told me she would put him behind bars if he ever came back. But then, the woman had a tendency toward exaggeration.”
“Nothing other than becoming restless in the shop. She said it was somewhat of a bore, and that her desire for a little excitement had placed her in the company of some important people, heady stuff for a shop owner, I imagine. Polly was a woman with the power of persuasion. The woman who corrupted me body and soul, you see.”
After Donnish departed, Basham gave himself a moment to reflect on what he had been told. An old axiom: Never theorize before you have the facts because then you twist the facts to fit the theory came to mind. And yet, he had gotten a lot of mileage from his instincts. If this conniving woman fancied herself a spy, it would surely be an embarrassment to those who may have bedded her. He knew the Yard would be searching Polly’s flat for clues about her activities before the day was out and decided to preempt the activity by having a look himself.
As Polly had remained in Mrs. Dobbins’s flat and therefore a neighbor, Basham had long ago taken the precaution of making an impression of her door key. One couldn’t take too many preemptive steps against a person whom Basham had been convinced was a murderess and living two doors away.
Leaving Bobbins behind once more, Basham pulled on his overcoat and left the warmth of his fireside. Both dusk and danger seemed to blanket him as he approached Polly’s front door. His eyes searched for onlookers as he tried the doorknob and found it already jimmied. Ever so carefully, he nudged open the door and listened. Beyond his line of sight, he heard someone rummaging through drawers. He pushed further inside on cat’s paws and was somewhat surprised to find the backside of a bobby in the midst of a heavy-handed search.
The befuddled intruder uttered, “Ya,” before catching his mistake. It was as if a window shade had been lowered against the sun, for the spark went out of an impending conversation. The man rushed Basham with intent to harm.
Basham’s arthritic legs did not fail him. He managed to side-step his attacker and direct a well-placed foot into the man’s groin. This gave Basham enough time to slap garrotes that he always carried in his topcoat pocket around the man’s wrists and ankles. He started to take the whistle from the uniform of the fraudulent policeman, and then thought better of it. Leaving the man helpless on the floor to ponder his fate, Basham picked up the search.
If a woman such as Polly were hiding secrets, where might she keep them? Basham thought he knew. In her boudoir, he lifted the mattress and found several sheets of paper penned in the cursive hand of a woman. Where better to place something secret than under the place where secrets were revealed? He flipped through the pages. There were notes that could be damaging to the nation’s security, such things as military intelligence and the strength of troops, and the opinion of men in high places about developments on the continent.
Everyone lives with his or her own set of illusions, a different perspective about right and wrong. What Basham had found on the pages beneath Polly’s mattress were more interesting than love letters tied with a blue ribbon, and would most certainly be embarrassing to the Crown. In the world of espionage, she was expendable. By and by, there was no proof that the Austrian had killed Polly. He was deported, and that was that.
* * *
Something disturbed Basham’s slumber. At first, he thought it was Bobbins scratching with a paw until a less than gentle nudge caused him to turn over. Trying to shake free of sleep’s cobwebs, his eyes focused on a man looming above him. Although shrouded in darkness, he could see the shape of the lurking face and the mottled pearl of a man’s teeth.
“Lamont.” Why hadn’t Bobbins sounded an alarm? Then Basham remembered. The dog had crossed Lamont’s path when Ms. Dobbins was killed. Took a chunk out of Lamont’s ankle, in fact, but might now be intimidated. Basham could only hope the intruder had not silenced the little dog permanently.
“Ah yes, faraway places. But
it’s hard for a man to make a
living in countries with language barriers.
Lamont chuckled. “Still the righteous patron, always looking out for the unfortunates.” He left no room for Basham to maneuver, but did straiten to his full height at the bedside. “The only reason I didn’t kill you in your sleep is because I wanted you to know you may have gotten the better of me in your first attempt at meddling, but not this time. I want the face of Ralph Lamont to be the final thing the great inspector sees in a life that’s lasted too long.”
“Quite the master of crime, you are, smothering the life out of an elderly woman and marauding through the streets and into bedrooms.”
“You’re trying to buy time, Basham, but that’s all right. Time to let the fact that your life is about to end take hold. Yes, I killed old lady Dobbins, and Polly and me had plans for you that you managed to thwart, but you couldn’t make a case to the authorities, could you?”
It would have been injudicious for Basham to answer. Better let this rouge continue his diatribe than interrupt. More time to think of what might be his options.
“We both knew you would be marauding about, hoping Polly or myself would slip up. I decided to make a return appearance in the event Polly left something for me in a will, if she didn’t change what I coerced her into writing at the time of my departure. My first thought was that you had killed her before realizing that, even though you enjoy playing judge and juror, you wouldn’t likely soil your hands with the final work.”
Basham couldn’t resist. “Sanity is often held onto by a slippery rope and you have fallen loose, dear sir.”
Lamont chuckled again, more dangerously this time. “Take it as you will, Basham. However you take it, it is your last observation.”
Without answering, Lamont unsheathed a frighteningly long knife. Basham lay in bed with one hope only. “Bobbins,” he screamed.
It was just a moment Basham needed. He grasped the small derringer from beneath his pillow. He had slept with the weapon every night since Lamont and Polly had been released for lack of evidence in Ms. Dobbin’s death. As Lamont tuned back, Basham fired into the middle of the intruder’s chest.
Lamont staggered. The shot may not have laid him low, but it gave Basham another moment to aim at the heart with the second shot. The flash of the muzzle gave Basham the satisfaction of seeing the unbelieving expression of Lamont’s face before he dropped to the floor. Basham crawled out of bed and stood over the fallen Lamont. There was no pulse. The two mini-balls had done their job, concluding their journey somewhere within Lamont’s torso.
Basham lit a lamp and looked for Lamont’s point of entry. He found a window forced open and a small stepladder against the outside wall. He also found Bobbins unharmed beneath the bed and pulled him from his hiding place. It was then that Bobbins growled at the dead body on the floor.
“A fine watchdog you are, my little Scot. And the man’s legs right in front of you.”
* * *
Two pairs of eyes fastened on Basham as he related the events within the confines of his flat. He ruffled the hair around Bobbin’s neck as the ambulance carried away Lamont’s body. Basham informed the officers he would come to headquarters in the morning and give a full account of the event.
As Basham and Bobbins settled into their respective beds, he hoped to slip into the arms of Morpheus for a few hours, but it was not to be. The sounds of the dreaming dog and the tell-tale cloth over the spot where he had stopped a man’s heart provided no respite or sanctuary on this night. As he gazed into the darkness, he wondered if anyone would have mourned had Lamont been successful, if the man had been without the weakness of confession. That flaw had cost Lamont everything.
In this long history of working with Scotland Yard and in the years since, it was only the second time Basham had killed a man. It gave root to a sentiment he couldn’t quite define. He was doomed to await the dawn and to wonder if he would ever sleep contentedly in his own bed again.
J. T. Seate is author of the popular Inspector Basham stories. Seven Inspector Basham stories have been published online at omdb! — “Turn About” (November, 2012), “Letting Off Some Steam” (June, 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), and “Winds of Change” (March, 2015). Six non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — “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.
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.
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