The late Reverend Babbington’s cottage was, as he had described to Conroy, located at the far side of the village, up the hill a little way beyond the church and overlooking the rest of the residences stretched down below.
As he stumbled up the winding lane, passing the old and sparsely populated graveyard, Conroy cursed the dead man for living in such a remote part of the village. He had hoped that he could send the boy up to Babbington’s house in his stead. But Walcott’s note had been most specific in its request for Conroy’s presence at the scene and had been written with such urgency and authority that he felt he had little choice but to attend. To fall foul of a priest was one thing, but to fall foul of who was also the local magistrate was quite another.
As he neared the old, and slightly tumbled-down cottage, Conroy became acutely aware of the looming undertaker’s carriage, which was parked up on side of the lane just outside the murder site. A small crowd of curious onlookers and nosy neighbours were gathered around it, each peering up at the quiet house, clamouring for a glance of the action going on inside.
Chief amongst the onlookers was a figure that Conroy had no interest in seeing and - despite his attempts to pass through them discreetly - he found his shoulder being clapped somewhat roughly by the hand of Tommy Watson.
‘Well played, Paddy,’ he crooned, nodding towards the cottage. ‘Good to see an Irishman pulling his weight at last. It’s just a shame you caused the problem to begin with…’
For a man of his build, Conroy’s movement was swift. He reached and grasped hold of two – not one or three – of Tommy’s fingers and twisted them sharply to one side. As his bones began to crack, Tommy let out a yelp of pain and fell to his knees with such a thud that the whole crowd stopped and turned to see what all the commotion was about. Only when he had everyone’s attention did Conroy release a grip on Tommy’s hands before trudging his way through the eager crowd. The onlookers parted with a brief murmur of discontent, leaving his way through to the cottage clear.
With Tommy’s whimpering ringing delightfully in his ears, Conroy made his way up the narrow garden path, ignoring the crooning from the villagers behind him. He reached the door and turned, casually taking in the poorly kept garden, which was overgrown with weeds, tall grass and wild flowers. As he did, he caught a glimpse of the crowd watching him carefully – only for a split second, mind – before they all simultaneously threw glances at each other as though they had no interest in his arrival at all.
Tommy had disappeared – whether hidden by the crowd or skulking back to the village to drown his sorrows, Conroy didn’t care. With a satisfied smile on his face, Conroy turned back towards the door when a small movement in the low-cut hedges caught his eye.
Staring out through the thickets, a pair of blue eyes watched him intently. Today Hannah was wearing a neat, sky blue dress, but her hair and pretty face were unmistakable and, almost as soon as Conroy glanced at her, she let loose a playful smile before giggling delightedly and disappearing back through to the next field. Conroy couldn’t help but chuckle to himself as he stepped inside the cottage.
Bless young children, he thought. They know nothing of hatred.
‘There is nothing to smile about here, Mister Conroy.’
The booming voice of Reverend Francis Walcott reverberated around the thin walls. Conroy hadn’t noticed him stood in the doorway a little further down the corridor. He quickly wiped the smile from his face, but he already knew it was too late.
Reverend Walcott was already dressed in his vicar’s garbs, as though he had arrived at the house ready to officiate over Babbington’s funeral. His cold and grey eyes surveyed the butcher with the meticulous distaste that Conroy imagined a doctor would examine some infection or pox on a human body. He took a few steps forward, his heels pounding on the wooden floor, causing one particular floorboard to creek beneath him, whilst his mass of grey, curly hair bobbed up and down as though caught in an irregular breeze.
He sneered at Conroy, biting his lower lip and turning up his nose as his eyes examined the stained clothing of the untidy butcher.
‘I sent the Reverend Babbington to you for advice,’ he announced, swallowing hard as his eyes tried to pierce Conroy’s very soul. ‘He did come to you, did he not?’
‘He did, sir,’ Conroy replied. ‘But there was nothing in his story that required any action…’
‘So, you sent him away?’
‘I did, sir.’
Walcott’s eyes flashed with anger. ‘And in so doing you have murdered him,’ he declared, gesturing wildly towards the door behind him.
‘You didn’t think, Conroy, that is the problem.’
In a room just off to one side, Conroy imagined that he heard a quiet sob of a woman’s tears as Walcott’s words echoed around the house. Walcott seemed to hear it as well and, with a moment of shame passing across his face, he took a step closer towards Conroy and lowered his voice to barely more than a whisper.
‘You have a duty, Mister Conroy, a duty to your community and to the people of this village. I would expect someone – even a pathetic Paddy – to do his duty whenever he is required to do so. Not to just send an elderly man back out into the world when the fear of death hangs over his head…’
‘Then perhaps, Reverend, you might see fit to replace.’
A flicker of anger passed behind Walcott’s eyes.
‘Oh, no, Mister Conroy,’ he sneered, a hint of a smile crossing his face. ‘You will remain with your charge. You will investigate this matter thoroughly and maybe – just maybe – you will be able to rectify this great misdeed that may damn your soul for all eternity.’
He stuck his chin out towards Conroy and folded his arms together as though he had passed some great damnation upon him. Conroy, in return, folded his own arms and flicked his head back towards the crowd waiting out by the lane.
‘I think they’ve already damned me to Hell,’ he muttered. ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Reverend?’
Walcott could hardly contain his disgust. ‘Blasphemy,’ he uttered, shaking his head in despair.
For a moment, the vicar looked as though he might launch into a private sermon for Conroy’s benefit, but another whimper from the side room soothed his anger. He took a step passed Conroy towards the closed door and waited for a moment.
‘I will be with Miss Constance,’ he announced. ‘This is a terrible time for her. I expect you will be speaking with her before you leave.’
‘I have my duties at my shop to attend to,’ Conroy began. ‘I can only give this matter as much time as…’
‘You will be speaking with her before you leave,’ Walcott interrupted, his voice firm and unmoving. ‘You will investigate this matter properly and with all the time that God - in his wisdom – requires of you to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.’
‘And if I do not?’
Walcott considered him for a moment, a small, malicious smile forming in the corner of his mouth.
‘If you do not, I will have you thrown in jail,’ he said. ‘After all, you must bear some responsibility for his death.’
He pushed open the door and disappeared into the room beyond without another glance at the butcher. Conroy waited in silence until the door had closed firmly behind the magistrate before turning his own attention to the room at the end of the corridor.
The room he entered was a neatly decorated study with two large windows running along the south side of the cottage, which flooded the whole room with the rising sunlight. At the far end of the room was a large bookcase and there, sat awkwardly in a chair behind a desk, was the body of Charles Babbington – a neat bullet hole present at the side of his temple.
Stood beside the body, Doctor Arthur Edison brushed the hair out of his eyes and pulled his green, frock coat tight around his waist as he drew himself to his full height to greet the new occupant of the room. As his dulled eyes fell on Conroy, he sighed wearily and shook his head in distaste as the butcher waddled across the room.
Conroy stopped at the other side of the desk, peering down at the dead body and – with a twinkle of mischief in his eye – asked:
‘So, how’s the patient, Doctor?’
Edison shook his head impatiently. ‘This is no laughing matter, Butcher. I’m sure you’d take great pleasure at watching me carve him up, but to the rest of us he was a human being…’
‘So, you knew him then?’
Again, Edison shook his head. ‘I’ve never seen him before. He was not one of my patients, that’s for sure.’
Edison turned away from Conroy and glanced back down at the wound in Babbington’s temple. As Conroy leaned forward to get a better look for himself, he noticed Edison’s nose twitch and the slight hint of a scowl crossed his features. Although a medical man and, by all accounts, a friendly and good-spirited member of the community, Doctor Edison had never sought to show Conroy any kindness. According to the boy, Edison had been serving as an Army doctor in Ireland during the Young Irelander Rebellion eight years before – an experience that had done much to foster his hatred of Conroy’s home country,
‘Well, I can tell you one thing, Butcher,’ Edison began, being careful not to make eye contact with Conroy. ‘This man committed suicide.’
‘You are sure?’
Eidson nodded, gesturing to a small calibre pistol that lay on the table a short distance from Babbington’s outstretched fingers.
‘Small bore pistol,’ he explained. ‘It matches the wound in his head.’ He finally glanced up at Conroy, completely failing to hide his revulsion of the dirty butcher. ‘When you’re in the Army, fighting for a worthwhile cause, you learn to spot these things.’
Conroy nodded, reaching down and carefully picking up the pistol. It wasn’t a revolver - at least he didn’t think it was. The pistol had a single barrel, which Conroy easily flicked open so that he could examine the casing inside. As he stared down into the dark tube, his heart fell.
‘Suicide?’ he repeated. ‘You are sure?’
Edison didn’t even attempt to hide his distain. ‘Are you questioning my authority?’
‘No, no, sir,’ replied Conroy. ‘Just your conclusions…’
He set the pistol back down on the table and made his way over to the windows. As he looked out he could see that the whole village was stretched out beneath him. Despite the great height of the church down the lane a little, Babbington’s study commanded a view of the vast majority of the main road as it wriggled down into the centre of Barclay’s Hollow. Not only that, from the window Conroy could see the entrance of almost every major site in the village: the Village Hall, the Royal Oak public house, the Rectory, the Grocers…
He could even see his own shop, although admittedly it was somewhat obscured by the hedges that grew around the courtyard.
Behind him, Edison scoffed loudly.
‘I respect that you are the official representative of the law in this matter, Butcher,’ he said, although to Conroy’s ears he could hear very little respect in the doctor’s harsh tones. ‘But I am a doctor of many years experience. A military man as well. You must learn to appreciate the opinions of your betters or else…’
‘My betters?’ Conroy interrupted, turning sharply towards Edison, shutting him up in an instant. ‘Alright then, perhaps you could answer me this, what do you make of this window?’
Edison hesitated for a moment. As he skulked over to the window, he bore in his expression the same features as a young lad being forced to walk through the rain to school. As he arrived next to Conroy, he gave a cursory glance out of the window and said:
‘A lovely view. Babbington was obviously a man of taste who appreciated nature…’
‘Interesting,’ Conroy replied. ‘You see a lovely view, I see the watch tower of a paranoid man.’
Edison thought for a moment. ‘Well, it is to be expected. I understand only yesterday he came to you for help with a problematic visitor. It is not hard to imagine that when you refused his pleas, he was scared out his wits. Paranoia is not often the cause for a man to take his own life, but it does happen on occasion…’
Conroy waved him quiet, much to Edison’s irritation.
‘And what of the window itself?’ he asked. ‘What do you make of that?’
Edison gave another casual glance.
‘What of it?’ he asked. ‘It’s a window. What more do you want to know?’
‘Do you think it’s ever been opened?’
The confusion on Edison’s face was more than worth asking the question.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘Not in some years, I fancy.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ Conroy replied, turning back towards the body. ‘So, they did not come in through the window…’
‘The window? Butcher, I have already told you, this is a case of suicide – a suicide brought on by your neglectful and callous actions, but a suicide nonetheless…’
‘You are wrong, sir.’
Edison laughed loudly.
‘I, Butcher?’ he chuckled. ‘A medical man of experience is wrong but a butcher or none is not…’
’In my experience,’ Conroy shot back, ‘experience does not negate the use of intelligence…’
He nodded respectfully towards Edison and marched quickly towards the door.
Edison smiled at the butcher’s retreating back.
‘Oh, really? And what - pray – leads you to suggest that I am wrong? Did the dead man promise not kill himself when you saw him last night? Or perhaps you have been struck by some divine influence just by stepping into his house?’
Conroy paused in the doorway, turning towards Edison with a curious smile on his face.
‘No, sir,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t need God to tell me that this man didn’t kill himself. The bullet in the gun did that for me…’
Edison waited until Conroy was out of the room before dropping his smile. Tentatively, he reached forward and picked up the pistol, slowly opening the chamber and peering inside. The pistol was not unlike the old flintlocks that used to be so common – capable of firing only one shot at a time.
Conroy may not have been a military man, but he wasn’t stupid after all.
The gun was still loaded.
It hadn’t been fired at all.