It was a gentle autumn that year and despite the fine weather Basil's health had taken a turn for the worse. I had warned him time and time again that he pushed himself far too hard. He was out at all hours of the night following leads, which was bad enough! But he insisted as well on testing his own concoctions upon himself and I told him that the stresses of all these activities would come to claim their due.
And so they did, and I was forced to inform Basil, with the aid of another doctor, that if he did not take immediate action and relax, he would soon face a total physical collapse and be unable to perform his work at all. The threat of losing his greatest joy was enough that he actually heeded my words.
So it was with many protestations from Basil that we took our leave from London one foggy morning to the outskirts of the city, where the air was clearer and there was some form of nature to experience.
The carriage ride on the way there was quiet, us riding beneath the humans on their way to their own strange human business. Basil had taken to a silent and defeated gloom instead of his earlier loud, frequent, complaints about our upcoming vacation. I, myself, was looking forward to it. Rambling through hills, meeting the locals, and simply relaxing.
Of course, as with all excursions with Basil, relaxation was not in the cards. It was our third night in our little rental on the outskirts of London, far from the worst of the city's pollution that things took a turn.
The rental was a little abode dug into an embankment, much more natural than the holes in the wall we were used to. Even Basil expressed that all this good dirt and cool air would do a great deal to improve him. We'd introduced ourselves to our temporary neighbours, permanent residents and vacationers, and already had made fast friends. I had taken a shine to a lovely golden-furred woman of my age and the healthy figure of country living and her brother, a quite young brown and white fellow with crafty eyes who stayed in her shadow. With Basil we could have had a card foursome but Basil had found, of all things, a hamster out here and was enjoying the bravado of the large syrian and his expertise on the tunnels that made up this neighbourhood.
The syrian claimed that he would ramble a human mile or more a night, and had come to know this place quite well in his nightly walks by his attempts to stay interested. It was everything I could do to keep Basil in bed at night and not out exploring ancient rodent - and human - aqueducts and ruins.
I mentioned a turn, didn't I?
Well, on the third night -- while I was insisting Basil stay in with Miss Adelaide and young master Cain, for that was the name of the siblings, for a game of cards and then bed -- the Honourable Rahal came rushing in. His fur was matted and most unusually, you could see the whites of his eyes…
"My goodness!" I said, quickly grabbing a chair for the larger rodent. Miss Adelaide gasped and fell back against her brother from the shock of it all. "What's happened to you, Rahal?"
He sat down, fitting somehow (I have come to find out since then, that most of his mass was, in fact, fur) in the mouse-sized chair and gripped the arms, claws digging in.
"Dr. Dawson, I must ask you that you please take the lady and sir out of the building. What I have to say is for Basil and Basil alone, until we can bring in the police."
I took offense to that, naturally, as I was Basil's partner and confidante. But the Honourable Rahal was a judge and perhaps this was some matter of law that superseded such matters. I acquiesced, partially because I knew Basil would tell me notwithstanding. I walked Miss Adelaide and Master Kane to the door and out to the walk to their home further along the embankment.
"I will call for you when you may return!" said Basil to my back as I left out the door into the comfortably chill night.
"I apologize," I said to our former guests. "Life can be quite exciting with Basil."
"Oh, I understand!" said Miss Adelaide. She patted my arm. Though she was my age, her brother was much younger. I had come to understand that their age difference and family circumstances had left him as her ward until he reached the age of majority. He was a polite enough young mouse, but he did not seem fully content with matters. I, fond of children, had never had much luck with the older set caught between childhood and adulthood, and had chosen to mostly leave him to his own devices. My interests lay mainly in his sister, Miss Adelaide. Of course, since coming here I had found I had competition in the matter - Lord Sackville, a burly mouse who had recently returned from traveling in Africa and was also here for some recuperation. I, a mouse of the world, did not expect someone with equal claim to adventure, to pursue the same woman as I. It was a little quailing, I admit.
It did not help my prospects, I must also add, that Miss Adelaide had nothing but good things to say about Lord Sackville. Oh, she was perfectly friendly and enthusiastic to me but there was something in the way she'd, well, gush about how he would be just the mouse to face whatever had scared Rahal so.
When I had escorted the two home I returned and waited in the chill by our rental for Basil's signal, wondering what he would employ to call me back.
When Basil flung open the door and bellowed for me to return, I wondered no longer .
I came in to find the Honourable Rahal was still with us, though looking a great deal more composed.
"Basil here has talked me into including you," said Rahal without preamble. "He assures me you can be trusted with the utmost confidence."
I stood as tall and proud as I could, whiskers bristling. "You can be assured of that!"
"Then sit, Dr. Dawson, and allow our guest to tell us his tale!" said Basil, sitting across from Rahal, eyes bright. I had no doubts Basil had already heard it and formed his own conclusions, but I appreciated getting it from the source, as it were. I sat down in the chair between the two.
"Well. As you know, I am the judge in these parts," began Rahal. "My family arrived here years ago in the luggage of a young girl and between one thing and another, we came to settle here in this small township."
Basil nodded, gesturing for him to go on.
"Often the only cases I have to deal with are small, petty theft mostly. Which leaves quite a lot of time for me to wander in and about the old tunnels and ruins that make up this area of the world. Well, I was thinking to myself tonight that it had been quite a while since I'd visited the roman aqueduct that had collapsed in before I'd ever moved here and it was time to go again. Not only because it grew a fine, fine moss that was a delight to the senses."
I leaned in. Rahal took a deep breath.
"And what I found in there necessitated an immediate call to the police, the London police, as we only have Officer Perkins here and though he's a fine young gerbil I found it best to get in professionals while he guarded my find."
"Yes?" I leaned in further.
"A mouse, dead and cold, and face expressing a look of utmost terror!" Rahal sat back.
"He didn't just fall?" I said, curious.
"There was not an injury on his body, or signs of that foul rat poison the humans use. As far as I could see, the man had died of fright!"
Basil stood up then, clapping his knees in excitement. "Which means all the more reason to bring Dawson here to have a look at the body! I wish to make a full investigation before the police arrive!"
Rahal stood also, towering over us, his golden fur sticking out over his collar like a lion's mane. "Very well. Though I do not relish seeing that man's look of horror once more."
I will not bore you with the trip there or the journey down the aqueduct, but when we arrived, the body was much as the Honourable Rahal had described it. His body did not show the signs of the pain and agony that rat poison caused, nor did he have a scratch on him! But his face! His eyes! Wide and horrified. I see now why Rahal had been in such a state when he had come to us.
Basil was making his own investigations. He seemed to leap from corner to corner of the aqueduct, over old stonework and old damage. He was looking for something, though I did not know what.
Officer Perkins, a black and white gerbil with a puffy end to his long tail, was standing guard at the only way in and out of the aqueduct. He did not look at ease. Life in this township was a simple thing, as I had come to know, and dead bodies before their time was a rare event. I walked over, to make conversation. Rahal himself was sitting calmly now, watching Basil run about.
"Hello, there!" I hailed Perkins. He jolted an entire inch into the air.
"Oh! Doctor! I was… I was looking outward, sir!" he said. "I didn't expect anything from… from within."
I glanced back down, at the mouse laying on the stone floor. He was dressed in a suit that had clearly seen better days, and his fur was a mottled collection of browns and whites. He looked thinner than a mouse should be. I could hear Basil expounding now to Rahal about the deceased having recently arrived here by train as a newspaper seller, but beyond that, I couldn't make out much more.
There was no, as Perkins seemed to fear, ghosts wandering about.
Basil scampered up to join me shortly.
"We're in luck, Dawson!" he said. "And can you tell me why?"
"Well, I can't, Basil," I said. "I can't for the life of me see what killed the poor fellow."
"But that's it! How long has he been dead? Surely you've noticed that!"
"Hours, maybe. Maybe not many at all. Why is that--" My eyes widened. "No one comes here."
And with that I leaned in, very close. "Rahal killed the man? But he's so respectable."
"No, Dawson, no! Completely wrong track. Rahal merely has a hamster's luck. He's as innocent as you are. No, we have the luck of a body where the evidence has not yet managed to fade away." Basil rubbed his hands together. "I need you to distract both Rahal and Perkins. What I must do now must be done in utmost secrecy if we're to catch the real killer!"
"Very well, Basil," I said and went to collect both judge and officer into a discussion about the finer points of bodily decomposition which Basil had led me to learn far more about than I had ever thought to know, even back in the war.
The police arrived just as Basil waved to me the all clear. Leading them was a young mouse by the name of Strode. He had a distinct brown-red fur and white ear, and walked with a limp which he had never chosen to enlighten me to how he had acquired. He worked, for a sense, with Basil on occasion and but he did not care for what he called Basil's 'showboating'. Basil informed me that Strode was simply petty over all the times he had failed to recognize Basil in one of his disguises until he'd made a fool of himself.
"And how did you end up here?" grumbled Strode to Basil.
"The honourable judge saw fit to include me in this investigation," said Basil not even pretending to defer to Strode.
Strode looked at the body.
"Completely wrong! I'll contact you again when we have the killer, dear Strode!" said Basil, practically skipping off. "Come along, Dawson! We really must get going."
Back at the rental, Basil placed some object I could not see in a sack and turned to me.
"Tomorrow, I request you invite your paramour Miss Adelaide and her paramour Lord Sackville to lunch. Please, I ask you not to include her brother."
"He is not her--" I began to protest, then frowned. "Very well. I will invite them."
"Good! For myself, I shall be inviting Rahal. It will be a nice little sit-down. Goodnight, Dawson!" and with that Basil flitted off to bed. Or more likely out into the night to investigate further.
I chose to sleep.
Convincing Miss Adelaide not to bring her brother to the lunch was harder than I thought, and I may have let her believe that Basil could not stand children, which was true, but not the reason for his disinvitation as far as I knew. Young Master Cain, thankfully, did not seem to take it as an insult and informed his sister he would be going rambling in a nearby field. Her annoyance at this changed to surprise when I asked if she would like to include Lord Sackville.
As we went to his rental to invite him, she peppered me with questions about the Honourable Rahal's visit the night before. I had not been given leave to discuss the body, and so I told her it was just the sort of things friends of Basil were prone to doing.
"He seems the sort," she said. I could not argue with that.
Lord Sackville's rental was filled with trophies from his time in Africa. Mysterious pressed flowers, hairs from elephants, all that sort of thing. He was gracious to me, as always, and seemed enthusiastic about coming to see Basil.
"The man's full of stories! I can't wait," he said, clapping me on my back boisterously. "Now, Addie, let me tell you about this piece of netting! So there was a lion, a fierce old boy, just trapped under a net and there I came at him…"
He continued his story of chewing the lion free as we made our way to lunch.
Basil and Rahal were there, Rahal looking much fluffier than the night before now that he was clean and dry, but it seemed almost as if the fluff were part of an… agitation.
"Thank you for coming!" said Basil, clapping his hands. "I must say it is nice to have such a large group for lunch!"
My interest was piqued, as coming from Basil this was a blatant lie.
"Everyone, please, take a seat!" said Basil, gesturing at the table.
"Ever since I came here for my health, every day has been a great improvement to me. In fact, I'm almost fit to return to London," said Basil, serving up tea and store bought biscuits with enthusiasm. I nibbled on one, watching our guests.
Everyone seemed a little… on edge. Which was odd, as only Rahal, Basil, and I knew anything was amiss.
"Now, one of the things that have greatly improved my time here has been the local lore and advice from my dear Rahal here," continued Basil. "He knows the plants and paths here like no other rodent! Why, he even put me onto this amazing moss that grew in the oddest place! An old aqueduct. I feel like you could say it was the source of my recovery."
"You know, it's not wise to just eat things you find on the ground," began Miss Adelaide.
"Yes! You wouldn't believe what's in the most innocent looking of plants," said Lord Sackville. "My god, man, you could have done yourself serious harm."
"But my dear Rahal has been eating it for years," said Basil. "And I've certainly shown no ill effects. No, the moss is perfectly delightful! He's told me he's enthused about it to everyone in the township, really."
"Indeed," said Rahal. "It's a dish that everyone should get to enjoy." He sipped his tea.
"And in that spirit, for my final meal here I'll be serving up a salad made off the very same moss I collected just yesterday morning," said Basil. He brought out a salad bowl, filled with moss that I knew now had been what he'd been collecting last night.
"Ah, well, if you say so…" said Lord Sackville, reaching to take some. His hand never reached the salad, as Miss Adelaide shrieked and hit his hand away. "Don't touch it! Don't go near it!" she said.
"Addie! What's gotten into you!" said Lord Sackville in shock.
"Poisoned," said Basil, crossing his arms. "You placed shavings of the Devil's Foot into it before you sent your husband to that aqueduct to stay hidden away from respectable folk."
"Husband? Addie?" Lord Sackville looked very confused.
With a sad sigh, Rahal pulled out two pieces of paper. "The marriage certificate of Miss Adelaide Northwood to Mister Eustace Penney. And the birth certificate of one Cain Penney, son of Adelaide and Eustace Penney."
"I don't understand, Addie," said Lord Sackville. "And she has no Devil's Foot. You idiots, that's part of my collection. Stop with your rhymes and riddles!"
Basil nodded to me and I stood by the door to prevent fleeing.
"I am afraid that Miss Adelaide is not the spinster sister she claims to be. Eustace was a useless husband, was he not? He couldn't keep down a job and barely cared for your son. So when you inherited from your family, you took your son and started a new, single life, now a sister instead of a mother. And things were going well! Why this very month you had both a lord and a doctor pursuing you!"
Basil paused for effect.
"Then Eustace returned. And it wasn't with love, was it. He just wanted money to stay out of your life."
"Addie.." said Lord Sackville, eyes wide.
She looked aside.
"Lord Sackville loves to brag about his trophies, does he not?" continued Basil. "And of course he would have mentioned the mysterious poisonous root, the Devil's Foot, which causes intense fear and hallucinations until the victim simply… dies. And I'm sure Lord Sackville noticed it missing, after you stole it, explaining his own unease."
"He was blackmailing me," whispered Miss Adelaide. "This was my life. And if I gave in, he'd come again, and again, and again. Me and Cain would have nothing and then out of spite he'd reveal me anyway."
"Oh yes. He put you in a corner and you saw a way out. And it was clever! You poisoned the food source, the moss, in the very place you told him to stay and wait for you to bring all you well-saved money. Then you simply never came."
"What are you going to do with me, then?" she said. She wiped an eye, but stood up straight and proud.
"I've merely solved the case," said Basil. "I assume Rahal will feel obligated to tell the police, who believe this to be a random case of rat poisoning. And it's up to you, I suppose, what you tell your son."
Lord Sackville stood up. "And if we run? We can be on our way to Africa by nightfall." He looked ready to fight us all.
"Well, how soon do you intend to tell the police, Rahal?" said Basil, glancing at him.
"Mm. Well, I'm a bit put out about my favourite moss being ruined so I'll have to have a comforting lunch first… oh, by nightfall I suppose."
Lord Sackville grabbed Adelaide's hand and made for the door. "Come on, Addie, let's get Cain."
I stepped aside.
Basil clapped his hands after they were gone.
"That was invigorating! Dawson, what a wonderful idea to recuperate my health, this vacation business is quite smashing after all!"