Conroy wasted no time with his preparations. He quickly told the others of his plan and had them move to their assigned positions around the room. With the exception of Walcott, who objected to the presence of the two young girls once again, everyone took to their tasks with great efficiency.
Collins stood behind the door, pencil and notebook in hand – ready to report every word that was said. The two young girls took up position behind Conroy who stood firmly in front of the desk, whilst Walcott loitered to one side so as to avoid any potential scuffle. Seeing that Doctor Edison was a military man, Conroy gave Babbington’s gun to him fearing - he thought with some justification – that the man about to join them may well be armed himself.
With everyone in position, the cottage fell silent. Nothing could be heard save for the gentle rustling of the trees and bushes outside and, as Conroy stood watching out of the study window, he began to wonder whether he had made a grave error.
It was a little before half past five when he saw the first signs of the man they were waiting for.
Down the lane a little way, Conroy imagined that he saw a flash of red in between the twigs of the thicket. A moment later, he saw it again as a tall man dressed in a red waistcoat and a long frock coat, emerged out of the lane, marching with all speed up the road towards the cottage. As he reached the garden path that led to Babbington’s cottage, the man stopped – his long, curly brown hair flutter slightly in the evening breeze – as he looked up and down the lane. Confident that he was not being observed, the visitor quickly turned on to the garden path and vanished from view as he headed towards the front door.
Conroy turned to his companions and raised a single finger to his lips.
‘Not a sound,’ he muttered.
They stood in silent for a few moments, each of them fearful that the visitor could well appear at the study window at any moment and discover their trap. Doctor Edison even raised his gun and held it there until the gentle scraping sound of metal on metal echoed through the quiet cottage. This sound continued for a few minutes – quiet but regular as though the visitor was trying to sharpen a knife on a toning iron whilst making as little noise as possible.
Then, after what seemed like an age, they heard the click of a lock and the front door swing open.
Holding his breath, Conroy readied himself. He could hear the intruder’s feet moving slowly along the floorboards, creaking loudly on the loose one near the door as he made his way towards the study. He seemed to pause outside, listening carefully.
And then, four long fingers unfolded around the wood of the door, gently pushing it open with a quiet creak. Further and further it opened until finally, Conroy could see the man’s silhouette stood in the doorframe peering into the light room.
Edison acted instantly.
With a great shove, he slammed the door against the man’s arms, causing him to squeal with pain as he dropped an oddly shaped pistol to the floor. With his next move, Edison flung the door back open, reached for the unknown figure and pulled him inside with all his strength. The man in the red waistcoat fell awkwardly to the floor at Conroy’s feet and, hoping to make a fight of it, jumped straight back up to his full height and readied to fight off his attacker.
The sight of Conroy’s massive body caused him to stop dead in his tracks and, with a little help from Edison – who jabbed him in the back with Babbington’s pistol – the man eventually raised his hands in surrender.
‘Good evening, Mister Bottle,’ Conroy said calmly. ‘I’ve been meaning to catch up with you.’
Bottle scowled up at the butcher, but he made no attempt to resist.
‘You. You’re Irish?’
Conroy smiled. ‘I can’t seem to get that past anyone, can I?’
At this moment, Walcott stepped forward.
‘What is this, Conroy? Who is this man?’
‘This man is Mister Edward Bottle,’ Conroy replied. ‘A sailor from Plymouth, apparently. Beyond that, I know very little about him. But I do know that he was the man who spoke with Miss Constance a few weeks ago, am I right Miss Constance?’
Constance nodded fearfully, taking a step closer to the relative protection of Reverend Walcott.
‘He is also the man who periodically watched Babbington before finally - the night before last - he took it upon himself to kill him. Although for what reasons, I am not entirely sure…’
‘I know why.’
The sound of Hannah’s voice took everyone, not least of all Bottle, completely by surprise. Conroy and Walcott turned towards her whilst Edison, who pressed the gun even further into Bottle’s back, remained on guard.
‘You do?’ exclaimed Walcott, trying his best to stifle a small laugh. ‘How in God’s name would you know such a thing?’
Hannah smiled up at Walcott.
‘Because I can read, Reverend,’ she replied, turning to the bookcase behind her and carefully selecting a book that she gave to Walcott.
‘Piracy Through the Ages by Reverend Charles Babbington,’ he read out. ‘What is this, child?’
‘That was the book that Reverend Babbington wrote. It’s a history of piracy in the last two hundred years. In it, he particularly talks about the pirates of the last fifty years…’
Walcott looked down at the book again and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t see what that has to do with it…’
‘Ah, but it does…’ interrupted Conroy, turning towards Bottle. ‘Which means the chest…’ He hesitated, his eyes sparkling. ‘Well, that explains everything.’
From his corner, Collins cleared his throat.
‘Would you mind explaining, just for the record?’ he asked. ‘I’m all lost at sea…’
‘As am I,’ agreed Walcott.
Bottle let loose a small smirk.
‘You’ll never have enough evidence to hang me, you know…’
‘We’ll see about that.’
With that, Conroy edged his way around Bottle and moved across to where the pistol lay undisturbed. He carefully bent down and picked it up, moving back across the room to where Edison stood and held it up for him to see.
‘What do you make of this, Doctor?’
Edison glanced at it for a moment.
‘It’s not like any pistol I’ve ever seen.’
‘It’s one of my own design,’ Bottle announced proudly. ‘It’s an air gun, designed to fire without gunpowder – only capable of firing short distances, mind, but it does the job very well.’
‘Hence the thud you heard, Miss Constance…’
Bottle glanced around in confusion. ‘What thud?’
Conroy continued around, placing the airgun carefully on the desk before turning back towards Bottle.
‘Would you mind being searched, Mister Bottle?’
Bottle sneered: ‘I don’t think I have much of a choice, do you?’
With every attention to detail, Conroy carefully checked each of Bottle’s pockets, starting with his frock coat before moving into his waistcoat pockets. After a few seconds, his fingers found something thin and metal. He pulled this object out of Bottle’s pocket and examined it for a moment.
‘A lock-pick, I suppose,’ Walcott muttered from over Conroy’s shoulder.
‘Quite right, sir,’ replied Conroy, placing the metal item down on the desk beside the pistol. ‘Capable of unlocking any door if the owner has enough practice with it. I trust that would be more than enough to convict him?’
‘More than enough,’ agreed Walcott. ‘It’ll be the gallows for you, son.’
Bottle laughed. ‘They haven’t yet made a rope strong enough to hang me.’
Conroy nodded. ‘Well, we’ll see. In fact, I think the courts will have the Devil’s own time trying to decide for what offence they hang you for: murder or piracy.’
‘Piracy?’ Walcott scoffed. ‘Don’t be absurd. There hasn’t been a pirate for over a hundred years…’
‘There has to,’ bellowed Bottle, shooting a snide glance at Walcott. ‘Some of the best pirates of history have been born out this century.’
‘Including Babbington,’ put in Conroy.
The atmosphere in the room immediately turned to surprise and shock.
‘He was a man of the church…’
‘Was he?’ Conroy replied, turning to face Constance. ‘What do you think, Constance? A man running from his past - trying to escape an old life. It doesn’t sound too absurd, does it?’ He turned back to Bottle. ‘I can only presume that there was something in that chest that you wanted badly, Mister Bottle?’
A glimmer of realisation shone across Bottle’s blackened eyes. He opened his mouth, almost unsure of whether to laugh or snarl, as he slowly nodded his head.
‘I take it that it was you who brought me here, then?’
Conroy nodded. ‘I asked Mister Armitage to tell you about the chest.’
‘He said you found it in a hidden compartment behind the book shelf, that you’d left it in Babbington’s study because you didn’t think it was relevant.’
‘That was what I told him to say.’
Bottle laughed. ‘He played his part very well,’ he muttered. ‘I must congratulate you, Mister Conroy.’ He then turned his attention to the rest of the room. ‘Although, seeing as there is no chest here, I take it that you haven’t really found it either.’
Conroy nodded. ‘I was hoping you might tell me what was in it.’
Bottle considered him for a moment, his eyes darting around the room as though hunting for a way out. Finally, as though all hope of escape had faded from his mind, he shrugged his shoulders and moved slowly towards a nearby chair. He sat down roughly in it whilst the pistol in Edison’s hand remained firmly trained on him.
‘I suppose there is little more harm that can be done now,’ he announced, leaning back in his chair and kicking his legs out in front of him. ‘Aye. I killed Charles Babbington. Only, when I knew him, his name was Charlie Babel.’
‘Charlie Babel?’ repeated Hannah. ’I read about him in Babbington’s book. He was the most notorious pirate of the last twenty years – second mate to Captain Delaway of the ship, The Devil’s Teeth.’
‘Clever girl,’ nodded Bottle, observing her for a few second. ‘Although Babel was hardly a notorious pirate – he was little more than a cabin boy. But he was a good sailor, if not a bit of a coward.’ He turned to Collins who continued to scribble away in the corner. ‘Be sure to write all this down. If I am to go to the gallows, I want the truth to be known, not that rubbish that Babel wrote.’
Collins nodded, licked the end of his pencil and continued to write furiously as Bottle spoke.
‘Back in those days, my name was not Edward Bottle – but Edward Delaway.’ Seeing Hannah’s gasping reaction, he smiled. ‘Yes, girl, it was my ship that Babel served on. When Babbington and I were young lads, we worked as privateers for the British Navy, sinking French and Spanish ships under the protection of His Majesty the King. But, with the final defeat of the French at Waterloo in 1815, we found ourselves cast off by our protectors. There were no more wars to fight so no more need for privateers like us. It was only natural that we turn our hand to piracy.’
With that he gave a curious look up at Conroy.
‘We were good at it as well,’ he continued. ’We used to run the coastline of America, picking off their merchant ships. We made quite good bounty off them and none of my crew were left wanting.
’That was until we were caught out by an American ship just off the coast. They were faster than us, with better guns, so we had to flee. In the process, the entire ship got riddled with gunfire. We barely made it to safe shores alive and, even when we did, the ship was practically keeling over as she sailed.
‘We ended up taking refuge in a small port in Cuba. But we knew the Americans were still after us so I ordered that all our treasure, such as it was, be taken to a place of safety. One man volunteered to hide it and he never came back.’
‘Charlie Babel,’ finished Conroy.
Bottle nodded. ‘Needless to say, without the treasure I could hardly pay for the repairs. My crew scattered to the winds and left me on Cuba to find my own way in the world. I spent ten years hunting Babel down to reclaim what is rightfully mine. I never thought in my wildest dreams that he would come back to England.’
He peered over at Constance.
‘I’m not ashamed of what I did,’ he said coldly. ’Babel had it coming to him. I - too - had read Babbington’s book. I realised - from the moment I read those lines about me and The Devil’s Teeth - that those words could only have come from Charlie Babel. Once I worked that out, it was easy to trace him here. I met the young lady here on her way back from church a month ago. Had I known that she was Babel’s daughter, I would have marched up here right then and there with a knife to her throat. But instead, I watched him. I came back every Sunday and watched through the study window, hoping to catch a glimpse of where he keeps the chest.’
‘But you got impatient,’ Conroy said, gesturing to the weapon on the table. ‘You decided to just take your revenge instead.’
Bottle glared at him for a moment.
‘I was hoping to kill him after I got the chest. But Babel was waiting, pistol in hand. I had no choice but to shoot first.’
‘Leaving the girl to take the blame…’
Bottle glanced back over at Constance. ‘Like I said, I’m not ashamed.’
Edison almost shot him then and there.
‘You monster,’ he cried out. ‘You selfish, unfeeling…’
A swift raised hand from Conroy stopped Edison in his tracks.
‘But, of course that left you with a dilemma. You still didn’t know where the chest was hidden and, with a dead body around, you were unlikely to get a chance to search the house until it had all blown over.’
Bottle nodded. ‘I was only booked in the public house for one night. But after I failed to recover the chest, I had to stay a little longer. I figured I would either hear news of it or be able to return a few days later without anyone being the wiser…’
‘Which was what gave you away,’ finished Conroy, nodding sympathetically towards the former pirate. ‘And now you will swing for it.’
Bottle peered intently at Conroy, leaning in a little closer and staring hard into his eyes. For a moment, Conroy felt that he could see a great evil lurking behind those eyes, something purely cold and unfeeling that was the source of the most unimaginable hatred he could ever conceive.
He bit down on his bottom lip and smiled up, his eyes darting to each person in the room. Finally, his eyes fell on Hannah who, despite the brave face she was trying to put on, was visibly quivering with terror. He returned his gaze to Conroy.
‘All I did was kill a pirate,’ he said slowly. ‘I would like to see them try.’