Episode Twenty – ‘Corpses & Corporeality’, Part Six

     It proved to be a tedious wait. Now that the resurrection business was deemed to be safe from competition Sam and Harry went on their way but Tom remained from a mixture of curiosity and a desire to finish off the brandy. As the minutes ticked by several of the other customers got up in turn to leave but nobody new entered to take their place. I was just beginning to worry that our absence from Mrs Grant’s party would surely be noticed if we stayed away much longer when the door opened and a blast of cold night air finally heralded the arrival of a new person on the scene.

Making an entrance

     Even swaddled in a heavy travelling coat, thick scarf and wide-brimmed hat there was no mistaking the figure who entered for anyone other than Captain Crowley’s son. John Crowley’s stomach may be a little less pronounced and his complexion not quite so ruddy as his father’s but all the basic ingredients were the same. He paused at the foot of the entrance steps and gazed suspiciously around the room, clutching his travelling bag in a manner that suggested he was half expecting someone to make a grab for it. John Turnbull slipped our table a knowing wink before stepping forward to greet the newcomer.

     “Why, if it ain’t young Mr Crowley! Good to see you again sir,” he declared, his air of cheery bonhomie perhaps exaggerated a touch by the brandy he had shared while we were waiting.

     “Ah Turnbull, I’m glad you’re here…” began Crowley in a low tone.

     “Sit ye down sir, sit ye down!” cried out Turnbull, entirely ignoring the note of caution in Crowley’s voice. Instead he grasped him firmly by the arm and steered him towards our table. “How was your journey? You’ll be in need of a drop of something to warm the bones no doubt.”

     “The journey was long but uneventful,” replied Crowley, making an ineffectual attempt to pull away. “I hoped perhaps there might be a quiet corner where we could do business.”

     “Plenty of time for that Mr Crowley,” insisted Turnbull cheerfully. “Only there’s some folks here’d like to say hello so why don’t you have a glass of our finest brandy first. Jenny, would you do the honours with a fresh glass for Mr Crowley, if you please.”

     By this time Jenny had already deftly relieved Crowley of his hat and scarf and he was thrust upon a vacant stool at our table with a freshly poured glass of brandy in front of him almost before he knew what was happening. He looked uncertainly down at the drink before drawing his eyes slowly around the table, taking in the semi-circle of eager faces arranged before him. “What is this?” he hissed unhappily at the landlord who had settled onto a stool alongside him. “Our business was supposed to be a private affair.”

     “Rest easy Mr Crowley, it still is… more or less,” Turnbull replied. “There’s only we few around this table that knows of it and that was but a matter of circumstance. These good folks here was friends of your father, see, and they had been making enquiries about him, enquiries which led them to my door. So you’ll see I’m afraid I had to let on to them about our little arrangement in the end.”

     Crowley continued to glare uncertainly at us for a moment more before turning back to Turnbull. “You have him then?” he asked with an air of expectation. “My father?”

     “I do Mr Crowley,” returned Turnbull with a hint of pride. “Rest assured, I have him.”

     “And what of… the widow, Mrs Crowley?” There was a slight pause before Crowley completed the sentence, as though he could barely bring himself to mention the woman out loud. “Did you get him away before…?”

     “We did,” confirmed Turnbull. “I remembered how you was anxious that I should have the body before she got here and acted accordingly. Though it was something of a close run thing in the end. The lady made a swifter journey than we expected and, truth be told, we was only just in time.”

     Crowley breathed a quite audible sigh of relief.

     “Won’t you tell us why all this was done Mr Crowley?” Emily took the opportunity to ask. “Everyone in Bath was so fond of your father – we have all been quite troubled and perplexed by his disappearance.”

     Crowley took a thoughtful sip of brandy before replying. “I am sorry to have put everyone to so much worry,” he finally said, “but the action I took was necessary in order to secure my inheritance.”

     Puzzled looks were exchanged around the table, nobody being made much the wiser by this pronouncement.

     “This threat to your inheritance, I’m supposing that comes from the widow?” Jenny suggested with a frown.

     Crowley nodded.

     “Then wouldn’t a lawyer be the obvious person to contact?” asked Michael. “If it’s a question of inheritance I would have thought the key issue would have been possession of the will and not the body of the deceased.”

     Crowley smiled ruefully. “Not where my father is concerned,” he said. “I am quite familiar with the contents of his will and I happen to know that the bequests detailed within it represent but a small proportion of his estate. My father’s true wealth…” He hesitated and looked around uncertainly. “This is really a rather delicate business.”

     “Oh, do go on Mr Crowley,” urged Emily. “You can trust us to be discreet.”

     “Your secrets is safe with us,” Turnbull stoutly insisted.

     Crowley swirled his glass a few times more then finally took a drink. “Well, the story goes like this. You all know, I think, that my father spent many years of his life at sea. Well, it seems that there are many opportunities for a naval man to – how should I put it? – supplement his basic salary. He may, for instance, be obliged to stop and board another ship in remote waters, another ship laden with cargo…”

     “Wait a minute! Are you telling us that Captain Crowley, officer in His Majesty’s navy, had a nice side-line in piracy?” I interjected, wondering if I hadn’t perhaps been a bit quick in dismissing all those outlandish tales of derring-do the Captain used to be so fond of telling.

     “Oh good lord no, he wasn’t a pirate,” Crowley quickly insisted. “He never boarded any ship that he didn’t have a perfect right to board. It was his job as a Royal Naval Officer to regulate the seas.” He swirled the contents of his glass round again before continuing. “It was just that on occasions he might be obliged to impound a ship’s cargo and perhaps the details of that cargo may not have been recorded with absolutely scrupulous accuracy… So that perhaps some of the treasure that was confiscated didn’t quite make it into the coffers of the exchequer…

     “Treasure!” exclaimed Turnbull, breathing the word out with an awestruck reverence.

     “Well, treasure is perhaps a rather sensational term,” conceded Crowley. “Sometimes it was gold or silver coin, more often it might be in the form of trading goods – silks, cottons, spices which could be turned into coin when they reached port.”

     “How much exactly are we talking about here?” asked Tom, suddenly sitting up and paying attention.

     “All in all, quite a substantial fortune,” confirmed Crowley. “My father told me that on such occasions the loot would be shared out amongst all the crew but as Captain he would naturally take the largest share.”

     “Naturally,” murmured Tom.

     “My father was understandably loath to entrust such gains to the scrutiny of a banking house so he gathered up the bulk of his wealth in a stout wooden chest and, in accordance with what I believe is common practice amongst men of the sea, looked for a safe location to bury it,” explained Crowley. “And as he was always extremely fond of this part of the country…”

     “Do you mean to say that he buried his treasure chest somewhere here in Bath?” exclaimed Emily softly.

     “Somewhere around here, yes,” nodded Crowley.

     A brief silence fell over the table, a silence that rippled with a suppressed excitement as everyone pictured to themselves buried chests overflowing with gold.

     “It has occurred to me,” Crowley went on somewhat cautiously, “that, not being altogether familiar with this part of the world myself, I may be in need of someone with some local knowledge to help me decipher the exact location. I would of course be willing to pay handsomely for any help received but you will understand that loyalty and discretion are absolutely essential to me in this matter.”

     “Loyalty? Haven’t I already proved myself loyal to you Mr Crowley?” cried Turnbull, his eyes glistening at the prospect of extra guineas. “Look no further sir!”

     “If it’s local knowledge you’re looking for sir, I’m Bath born and bred,” declared Tom in a more measured tone. “What’s more, if it comes to digging up treasure, I got a whole gang of men under my command who all know their way with a shovel and have had plenty of experience in keeping their mouths shut.”

     Crowley glanced suspiciously from one to the other, not entirely convinced by either offer.

     “I’m sure we’ll all be glad to offer what assistance we can, if only for the thrill of being involved in such an adventure,” said Emily, rather more altruistically.

     “How much do you know about the location of the treasure Mr Crowley?” asked Jenny, getting straight down to practicalities. “Is there a map or instructions of some sort?”

     “Of a kind,” replied Crowley with an enigmatic smile. He paused for a moment, enjoying the perplexed looks around the table before continuing. “My father didn’t like to trust to pieces of paper for an affair like this – he thought they were too apt to go astray. But having sailed a bit in the Pacific he was much taken with the practice that some native tribes have of marking their own skin with ink in order to record important dates and places.”

     “There’s a map on his skin?” said Turnbull, wide-eyed.

     “Marked across his stomach and back are all the clues necessary to find the chest,” confirmed Crowley. “Now you will understand why it was so important that you get the body away before Mrs Crowley could take possession of it. My father meant that money to go to me as his rightful son and heir but I’m quite certain she caught on to its existence somehow or other. And I know for a fact she would do anything in her power to snatch it out from under me if only she could get her hands on that map.”

     There was a pause, everyone else at the table presumably thinking the same thought.

     “I hate to break this to you Mr Crowley but she’s had ample opportunity to get her hands on the map,” I was the one to finally point out. “They have been married for six months now. She wouldn’t need to wait for him to pop his clogs before examining the finer details of his skin.”

     “Oh no, theirs was not that type of marriage,” John Crowley replied quite coolly. “She made it quite clear she would have nothing to do with that side of affairs and my father didn’t push it, being quite happy with having something pretty to dangle upon his arm. I’m sure Mrs Crowley felt she could bide her time, counting upon my being too far away in London to view the corpse before she could in the event of my father’s demise. She didn’t allow for my having made alternative arrangements.”

     “That was smart thinking of you Mr Crowley,” observed Turnbull sycophantically. “So, all we need to do is get the body out and see where we need to start digging.”

     “Indeed,” agreed Crowley. He took a final swig of his brandy. “Perhaps we should get down to business right away. Is my father close at hand?”

     “He certainly is Mr Crowley,” confirmed Turnbull. “I can take you to him right now if you wish.”

     “We may as well get on with it,” said Crowley and he rose from his stool.

     As if by common consent everyone else at the table immediately rose from theirs too, not wanting to miss out on the next stage of the treasure hunt. As John Turnbull hurried over to fish out a lantern from behind the bar, I glanced uncertainly at Emily. “Are you sure you want to follow this through?” I murmured.

     “Oh yes,” she readily agreed. Then a thought seemed to occur to her. “Of course, I’ll be sure to avert my eyes if we come upon anything improper,” she added. “I think that’s probably the thing to do, don’t you?”

     “I suppose,” I said with a shrug, not entirely sure at precisely what stage the examination of an elderly man’s presumably naked corpse might tip into the category of impropriety.

     Having fetched his lantern, Turnbull beckoned the party towards a low door alongside the copper counter. “This way folks,” he called out cheerfully.

     We all trooped in procession through the doorway indicated and along a narrow corridor that opened out onto a bare chilly room at the back of the inn. There was a large stone sink in one corner and an assortment of boxes and broken furniture scattered around. Turnbull paused over a large wooden trapdoor set into the centre of the floor. “Now you may want to be a bit careful of yer fine clothes as you go down the steps here,” he warned the party. “It’s a bit dusty down below.”

     The visitors all nodded, too eager to get on with the treasure hunting to care much about a bit of dust but Jenny Turnbull was staring at the trapdoor with an expression of vague horror on her face. “You stored the body in the cellar?” she said to her husband in disbelief.

     “What of it?” retorted Turnbull. “I said I’d keep it out of yer way, didn’t I?”

     “But the cellar John…” said Jenny.

     “It’s alright, it’s safe enough,” insisted Turnbull with a dismissive wave. “There’s nobody but Billy would ever think of coming down here and he won’t come down on his own.”

     “Yes, and there’s a reason why Billy won’t go down there on his own, isn’t there?” said Jenny with an air of exasperation.

     Slowly, the penny seemed to drop. Turnbull looked from his wife down to the trapdoor and back again, an expression of dismay slowly dawning upon his features. “Oh right,” he said after a moment. “I see what you mean.” He paused and looked down again. “But that’s not… I mean, they wouldn’t… would they?”

     “Is there a problem?” Crowley demanded impatiently.

     “No, no problem,” replied Turnbull quickly. He continued to gaze uncertainly at the trapdoor. “Only we have had some slight trouble with rats in the cellar of late,” he finally confessed.

     “Rats!” exclaimed Crowley. “I paid you good money to see that my father’s remains were well taken care of. I didn’t expect you to feed him to the rats!”

     “I didn’t! I’m sure it’ll be perfectly fine,” protested Turnbull. “I mean, what harm can a few skinny rats do?” he added in a far from convincing tone. After another pause he finally threw the trapdoor open. “Just tread carefully, that’s all,” he suggested as he slowly led the way down a rather rickety flight of stairs.

     If I had found the atmosphere upon entering the Saracen’s Head rather stuffy then it was nothing to the dense fug that enveloped us as we proceeded down the steps into the cellar. It seemed to me that the heavy noxious air gave me a whole new appreciation of the word ‘fetid’. It was Emily who faltered first, stopping before she had got halfway down and bringing her shawl up over her nose and mouth in an effort to filter out the horrendous smell. I was more than happy to pause alongside her and Jenny Turnbull waited with us, wearing a look that proclaimed that she knew nothing could be gained by venturing any further.

     I think Michael would have gladly stopped where we had but he was reluctantly propelled forward by John Crowley who clutched his arm whilst suffering a coughing fit part way down the stairs and did not let go. Only Tom Bailey and Turnbull himself seemed largely unaffected by the unwholesome air and they were the first to reach the foot of the stairs and look around. Barrels and boxes were stacked up roughly all around the cellar floor but as Turnbull swung his lantern around with a distinct air of trepidation I seemed to sense something else lurking in the shadows. Maybe the mention of rats had set my mind on edge but I was certainly quite happy to observe proceedings from my vantage point halfway up the stairs.

Into the cellar

     “Well man, where is he?” spluttered Crowley through the handkerchief he was holding over his face, clearly anxious to get things over and done with and get the hell out of there.

     “Just behind them barrels there, that’s were I left him,” said Turnbull, pointing towards one corner. There was a long pause.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” urged Crowley.

Turnbull uttered a heavy sigh. “Here, you’d better take this,” he said, passing the lantern to Tom. “Hold it up just here.” Then, with the lantern dimly illuminating his way, he took hold of a large barrel blocking the corner he had indicated. It seemed to require a moment or two for him to summon up his courage before he finally heaved it aside.

     I have no idea precisely how many rats were disturbed by this movement but the unholy screech sent up as they all squealed and scrabbled for cover echoed deafeningly around the cellar. Turnbull darted backwards and added a scream of his own to the cacophony of noise as he almost fell over. The light bobbed frantically around as Tom swore and kicked out at anything that came his way. Michael and John Crowley beat a hasty retreat back up the stairs, only stopping when they reached the point where Emily, Jenny and I were standing. Following in the wake of the noise came an even more fetid and somehow denser stench that washed right across the cellar and set everyone choking anew.

An unpleasant discovery

     Finally, the screeching and the coughing and spluttering died away and a heavy silence fell upon the cellar.

     “Dear God! Turnbull, what have you done?” cried Crowley between gasps for breath.

     “I don’t know where they all came from,” muttered Turnbull unhappily. “There was never this many before.”

     “I expects at least some of them came specially for the corpse,” noted Tom dourly. “What did you think would happen, leaving it lying around like that? Amateurs,” he added with a knowing shake of his head.

     “What of the body?” Jenny called out. “Are the markings on the skin still visible?”

     Turnbull took a tentative step forward to see but another slight scrabbling sound soon sent him scurrying backwards again. “You look Tom,” he urged. “I don’t think I can bear it.”

     Tom gave him a sour glare but then edged tentatively across the floor, holding the lantern protectively out in front of him. There was a collective holding of breath as he bent forward to peer closely at the bundle that had been revealed by the moving of the barrel.

     “Can you see anything?” Crowley called out anxiously. “Is the treasure still to be found?”

     After a moment or two Tom stood up and turned around. “I’m sorry to say Mr Crowley,” he announced with a heavy sigh. “But wherever that treasure is, there’s none but them rats’ll ever know it now.”

To be continued…

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