Miss Constance Babbington did not look like Conroy had expected. Dressed in a long, navy-blue dress and with a pretty bonnet on her head, her clothing seemed to be a far cry from the understated attire of the vicar Conroy had met the previous night. As he stepped into the room, his eyes fell immediately on the young girl who, stifling her sobs behind a lace handkerchief, looked up in terror as the butcher blundered his way into the room.
Walcott, who had been sitting alongside Constance, rose in an instant, pacing forcefully over towards Conroy who stood, stock-still in the doorway. But it was not Walcott’s movement that had halted Conroy’s advance. It was the sight of the young girl who appeared to Conroy to be little older than sixteen and yet had all the composure and maturity of a woman twice her age.
Conroy was so distracted by the girl that he barely noticed when Walcott hissed in his ear:
‘She has been through a terrible ordeal. Try to be less barbaric than usual.’
Conroy didn’t respond, instead moving swiftly across the room and drawing up a chair so that he could sit directly opposite the young girl. Wasting no time, Walcott followed in his wake and practically leapt into the seat next to Constance from where he stared daggers at the butcher.
‘Do you know who I am, Miss?’ Conroy asked, mustering the gentlest tones his voice could produce.
The young lady nodded. ‘Mr Patrick Conroy,’ she replied. ‘Reverend Walcott informs me you are the police representative in these parts.’
‘That’s right, ma’am,’ Conroy replied.
His eyes flickered over to Walcott who watched him with hawk-like attentiveness.
What else has he said about me, I wonder.
Constance lowered her handkerchief, peering inquisitively at the butcher’s calloused, cut and bruised hands.
‘Will you find the man who killed my father?’
Before Conroy had a chance to respond, Walcott leapt into the conversation, grasping a firm hold of Constance’s hands and rubbing her skin gently with his index finger.
‘Constance, we’ve been over this,’ he said soothingly. ‘Your father took his own life. There is no mystery to be solved…’
‘Then why summon a policeman at all?’ Constance shot back, nodding towards Conroy. ‘Why all the fuss over a man who took his life?’
Walcott’s eyes swept over to Conroy’s. ‘Because a clear message must be sent,’ he replied, more to Conroy than to Constance. ‘That such matters as these should always be taken seriously…’
Conroy broke eye contact with him – he was not going to rise to the bait, not with a grieving child in the room at any rate. He leant forward towards Constance, collecting a whiff of her strong perfume, and asked:
‘Why do you believe he was killed, Constance?’
Walcott was quick to reply on her behalf.
‘She doesn’t,’ he spluttered. ‘This is clearly nonsense…’
Conroy raised a single, chubby finger towards the magistrate.
‘I asked Miss Constance, Reverend Walcott, not you.’ He turned back to Constance and repeated the question.
‘Because he was not a suicidal man, Mister Conroy,’ she replied. ‘He was strong and resolute. If he were not a religious man I would even go so far as to say he was a fighter.’
‘A fighter?’ Conroy repeated. ‘Interesting.’
Walcott could hardly contain himself.
‘A man with troubles in his mind can hardly be expected to act rationally,’ he interjected, glaring across at Conroy. ‘Babbington was fearful for his life. Fear can make a man do irrational things…’
‘Then why,’ Constance fired back, ‘would a man afraid of death move to take his own life? Certainly he might be compelled to do something out of the ordinary, but to take his own life would be nonsensical.’
‘Stranger things have happened, Miss Constance. And a man under duress cannot be expected to act with reason or logic…’
‘But he cannot have taken his own life,’ Constance replied, her tears welling up once more. ‘I don’t believe it for a moment…’
‘And neither do I.’
Conroy’s voice brought the room into complete silence. Walcott, completely stunned by the butcher’s interjection simply stared across the room at him, his bottom lip trembling as he tried to find words through his insatiable anger. When he finally did, they had lost all sense of strength and authority:
‘You will know your place, Mister Conroy…’
‘And you, sir, will hold your tongue whilst I speak with Miss Constance, or else leave us to it.’
For a moment, Conroy thought he might have gone too far. But, rather than exploding in a ball of fiery anger, Walcott simply leant back into his seat, releasing hold of Constance’s hand as he fell against the cushions. There he sat, pale and despondent – sulking quietly as Conroy leant forward and smiled as comfortingly as he could manage at the young girl.
Constance’s eyes swept up and down Conroy’s mucky and dirty clothing, taking in every bloodstain and scuff mark on his leather apron, before settling on his rough face. She stared in silence for a few moments, barely breathing beneath her pristine dress.
‘You believe me?’ she asked eventually.
Conroy nodded. ‘Reverend Babbington did not kill himself, I’m sure of it.’ His eyes flickered over to Walcott as he scoffed loudly. ‘Not without help at any rate.’
Constance cocked her head to one side. ‘You have proof of this?’
‘The gun that lay on Reverend Babbington’s desk was not the one that fired the shot that killed him,’ he explained. ‘The gun is capable of firing only a single shot and the bullet was still in the gun when I examined it.’
‘Poppycock,’ exclaimed Walcott. ‘What does a butcher know of these things…’
Conroy made to answer but a cool voice from behind him beat him to it.
‘Mister Conroy is correct,’ interrupted Doctor Edison, stepping through the door to join the conversation. ‘Although how that knowledge could help Miss Constance’s delicate state, I do not know…’ He crossed swiftly over to Constance and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘Let us leave, Constance. This is no place for you right now…’
‘I have not finished,’ Conroy shot back. ‘Miss Constance may hold vital clues to who murdered her father…’
Constance nodded in agreement. ‘I should like to help the policeman if it means finding my father’s killer…’
From his place on the couch, Walcott scoffed again at the mention of the word ’policeman’, before nodding encouragingly to Edison, who shook his head confidently.
‘I will not hear of it,’ he announced. ‘You are to come with me back to my home right away. We shall leave Mister Conroy to find the answers himself.’
As he said this, Edison heaved Constance to her feet and began walking her towards the door. Despite her objections, Constance allowed herself to be escorted across the room, throwing only the occasional glance back at Conroy as he struggled to get to his feet.
‘Now, look here, Doctor…’
His voice was halted by the sudden shock of a delicate hand gripping a tight hold of his wrist. Instinctively, Conroy shook his hand free and raised the other to strike out at Walcott who barely flinched at the sight of the butcher’s outstretched hand. He had half a mind to lash out at the pompous dignitary – to wipe that spiteful smile off his face – but the last of his good sense enabled him to control his anger. He slowly opened his fist and lowered his hand although his heart pounded in his chest like a caged animal willing to break free.
Walcott raised a single eyebrow.
‘You will remember your place, Mister Conroy.’
And – with that - he slid passed Conroy and preceded straight out of the door.
Conroy stood in silence, watching through the window as Edison led Constance through the crowd of onlookers. Walcott followed close behind.
As Constance moved through the crowd, Conroy imagined that she stopped momentarily beside a haggardly, old gentleman dressed in a grey shirt and trousers before turning to Edison to frantically convey something. For a moment, Edison seemed to be listening, turning his head back towards the crowd as though looking for something, before shaking his head in dismissal of whatever Constance had to say.
Constance continued to plead with him for as long as Conroy could see them before finally they disappeared behind a hedgerow and vanished down the lane. Turning his attention back towards the crowd, Conroy searched for the old man in grey, finally spotting him towards the fringes of the crowd, staring silently back up at the cottage.
Conroy leapt for the door and strode out into the corridor. As he reached the front door, he was met by a parade of undertakers who marched solemnly into the house carrying a wooden coffin. They didn’t halt their advance at the sight of Conroy but continued straight into the house, forcing him to step back into the adjoining room to wait for them to pass. As the coffin was carefully negotiated through the tight corridor, the undertakers’ shoes creaked on the loose floorboard as they muttered instructions to each other. It was a good minute before his route was clear and Conroy was able to head back outside through the front door.
As he entered into the garden once again, his eyes searched frantically for the old man in grey. As he approached the crowd, they all turned as one to face him, their eyes cold and unhelpful as he moved back and forth along them searching each face one at a time. Upon reaching Tommy Watson, the lanky man called out:
‘What’s the matter, Conroy? Have you lost your dead body already?’
This heralded a burst of laughter from the crowd who all turned to nod in agreement at Tommy. Conroy shook his head, stepping forward a little closer to the crowd with his eyes blazing.
He grasped hold of the arm of a young man stood in front of him who squealed in terror at the grip of the Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow.
‘Hey, what you playing at?’
‘Did you see the old man in grey?’ Conroy asked. ‘Where did he go?’
‘I didn’t see nothing, Paddy.’
Conroy released his grip and moved on to the milkmaid stood next to him.
‘The old man in grey, where did he go?’
‘I didn’t see anything, sir…’
The next was an older woman, the wife of the village cobbler.
‘Mrs Hill, did you see the old man who was stood here? Bushy beard, long hair – dressed in grey…’
‘I don’t talk with Irishmen, Mister Conroy…’
Conroy stepped back away from the crowd, raising his voice a little.
‘Did anyone see the old man dressed in grey?’
There was a general murmur of denial from the crowd. Out of the murmur, Tommy – clearly intent on regaining some honour after his previous tussle with Conroy – raised his voice once again.
‘There’s no old man in grey here, Irishman,’ he bellowed over the crowd. ‘You must have imagined it.’
Another man, responding confidently to Tommy’s outburst, chipped in:
‘Maybe the stress of his position is getting the better of him…’
‘Yes,’ the young man who Conroy had grabbed agreed. ‘Go back to Ireland, Paddy.’
The crowd murmured in agreement.
‘That’s right, go home…’
‘There’s no place for you here…’
‘He can’t even keep a good, old vicar safe…’
Conroy didn’t wait to be insulted further. Using as much of his strength as he dared, he barrelled through the crowd until he reached the lane, ignoring the squeals of protest from the people he shoved his way passed. When he got to the lane, he looked up and down it, seeing no evidence of either the old man in grey or of Miss Constance, Doctor Edison and Reverend Walcott walking back down to the village.
Skipping his feet along the loose stones, Conroy turned down the hill and marched off in pursuit of the trio, hoping that he might – in turn – come across the elderly man on his travels. He found neither quarry, and the trio had already reached the path that led to Doctor Edison’s house before Conroy had rounded the corner.
Conroy paused at the head of the pathway, looking up towards Edison’s house and debating with himself whether he should try to speak with Miss Constance. He must have been stood there for a good few minutes when he became away of a rustling the nearby hedgerow. As he peered in amongst the leaves, he spotted a quick flash of a sky-blue dress and the red hair of the little girl who watched him with interest.
‘You can come out, Hannah,’ he said softly, stepping towards the hedgerow as the little girl scrambled out of the bushes.
She smiled triumphantly at him as she curtseyed before jumping up and down with excitement and glee. Conroy couldn’t help but smile – she really did remind him of his own Ciara.
‘I thought your mother told you stay away from me,’ he said, placing his hands on his hips in mock-irritation.
Hannah shrugged. ‘Mother says a lot of things. I pay very little attention.’
‘Is that how you nearly got run over by a cart yesterday?’
Hannah turned her head to one side, her face going an interesting shade of red as she kicked the stones at her feet.
‘I knew you were around to save me.’
‘Yes, really,’ she replied. ‘And besides, you helped me so I figured I should help you…’
‘With finding who killed Mister Babbington…’
Conroy’s eyes narrowed on the little girl.
‘How - in the name of God - did you know that?’
Hannah smiled victoriously. ‘I hear things,’ she replied. ‘No one ever sees a little girl when she’s hiding behind a window. Even you didn’t see me crouched down beside it when you were talking with Doctor Edison…’
‘You heard everything?’
‘Every word,’ Hannah replied, smiling again. ‘Adults are always so dismissive of little girls like me. They never see how valuable we are. I know, for instance, that Mister Babbington was killed by a different gun – not the one on his desk – and that you think he was paranoid or something because his window has a view over the whole village…’
‘You’re very perceptive,’ said Conroy, his eyes quickly darting up and down the lane to see if they were being observed.
‘I am useful,’ Hannah said abruptly, stamping her foot on the ground. ‘I could be your assistant…’
‘I already have an assistant…’
‘In the butcher’s shop, yes – some stupid boy who doesn’t know his right hand from his left. I’m talking about your job as a policeman…’
Conroy shook his head, turning his back on Hannah and moving slowly down the lane. He heard her trot up beside him, having to take five steps to keep up with a single one of his strides.
‘I’m not intending on being a policeman for long,’ he muttered. ‘After this is dealt with, I don’t imagine there will be any further call for my services…’
‘You’d be surprised,’ Hannah replied. ‘People can sometimes do the most wickedly awful things. And besides, you could use my help to solve this case…’
‘Go home, Hannah.’
‘I mean it,’ she shot back. ‘For example, you want someone to find out about the old man in grey, don’t you?’
Conroy stopped dead in his tracks, spinning around and leaning down to peer straight into Hannah’s eyes.
Hannah smiled again. ‘You want to know where he is, how long he’s been in the village and what he did that made Constance so fitful, am I right? If you start looking for him, word will spread and he’ll be miles away by the time you find him. But if I were to look for him, no one would ever notice…’
Conroy peered a little harder at her.
‘What do you know of the man?’
Hannah shrugged. ‘Nothing much, only that you’re interested in him, Constance is frightened of him…’ She paused for a moment – Conroy suspected this was for affect. ‘… and, of course, I know that he came by this way not five minutes ago, following Constance before heading back off into the village.’