It was agreed that Hannah would hunt for the old, untidy looking man in grey at Conroy’s behest – at least, that was what Hannah decided before skipping off merrily down the lane, ignoring Conroy’s pleads for her to come back. In fact, the whole affair seemed so bizarre to him that he had all but forgotten about it by the time he arrived back at his shop.
As usual, the boy had set up the shop-front incorrectly – nothing that a swift slap couldn’t solve - and, as the young lad set about rectifying his mistake, Conroy made his way into the back room and sat in his seat in quiet contemplation. He didn’t mind leaving the boy to his own devices – in fact it usually resulted in more business for him.
He had found over the last few months that the customers were far more likely to buy larger portions and greater varieties of meat when being served by the young boy than by the gruff and intimidating Irishman. For a short while, Conroy had even considered making the young boy a partner in the shop, such was the influence he had on the profitability of the enterprise. But, whilst the boy was bringing in more money than Conroy could ever dream to fetch on his own, it was still not enough for the butcher’s comfort and the thought of splitting his profits further was abhorrent to him.
On particularly lonely afternoons, as he skulked in the back room listening to the chatter of the customers outside, he often wondered how lost he would be if the boy ever decided to leave and set up shop on his own. Thankfully, the boy had neither the wits nor the money to be able to start his own shop so – for a time at least – Conroy would live in relative security.
As he stared quietly into the unlit fire, his mind wandered to Babbington’s study – to the elderly vicar lying sprawled in his chair. He imagined how the man looked – there was no fear in his eyes, none at all. And yet there was no doubt in Conroy’s mind that he had been murdered. That was the only reasonable explanation short of someone switching the pistol that killed him with the one found on the table.
But why would anyone do that?
The only reason Conroy could fathom would be if someone wanted Babbington’s suicide to look like a murder.
But what reason would someone have to do that?
Conroy shook his head, forcing the thoughts out of his mind as he grasped hold of the bridge of his nose. His head was beginning to hurt. Today’s events had been unusual and uncomfortable, and his mind had been forced to work far harder than it ever had done before.
He pushed himself to his feet and made his way across to the window, pushing it open in search of fresher air to clear his head. With the sun gently breathing on his face, Conroy looked down at the collection of houses on the meadow below. He often enjoyed looking out towards the boy’s house. One could say that it was out of curiosity of how the young lad lived his life after he left the dreary confines of the shop. It gave Conroy a huge sense of relief to know that there were other people out there who’s lives existed beyond the dullness of the working day, although it often brought him a huge deal of jealousy and emptiness for the life he lost.
To the family he lost…
Perhaps that was why he treated the boy so harshly. Perhaps he felt that he needed to be punished for enjoying life outside of his interactions with Mister Patrick Conroy...
It was decided.
The butcher would endeavour to be nicer to him…
With the fresh air filling his lungs, Conroy’s mind slipped awkwardly back to the body of Charles Babbington. He supposed that, in a way, Hannah was right. There was an element of paranoia that ran through the old vicar’s mind - that was evident from the moment Conroy encountered him in this very room.
But there was something more deep seated than that.
Babbington had only moved to the village six months before and, in so doing, he had chosen a cottage that overlooked the entire village. True enough, it was near the church but the study window also commanded a view of every major landmark that Barclay’s Hollow had to offer. The garden hedges on that side of the house had been trimmed down and yet the rest of the garden was riddled with weeds and overgrown grass, almost as though the hedges had been deliberately cut to allow a view of the lane beyond.
One thing was for certain, Charles Babbington was a paranoid man from the moment he arrived in Barclay’s Hollow – and he wanted to make sure he could see everyone’s comings and goings.
But for what reason?
Conroy returned to his chair and stared into the ashes of the fire from the previous night. The more he questioned the events of the last two days, the more he asked himself why he was even bothering at all. It was not as though he had volunteered for this position – by all accounts he was remarkably unsuitable for the task of keeping law and order in the village, particularly as the vast majority of disruption seemed to be caused by his own presence. Had he been a man of learning, such as Doctor Edison, he might have understood it, but he was a butcher, nothing more.
Then came the pang of guilt. For he knew really why he was so concerned with Babbington’s death. Whilst Walcott had been wrong about him driving the elderly vicar to his suicide, it was certainly true that Conroy bore some measure of responsibility. Babbington had come to him for help and Conroy had turned him away, despite him being the only person – with the exception of Hannah – who had ever shown the butcher any ounce of respect or compassion. Regardless of whether his death was suicide or murder, Conroy had played a part in it.
And with the certainty of murder came an even greater sense of guilt. Babbington had not been driven to his death by his own unstable mind. It had taken the actions of another man of flesh and blood to bring about the vicar’s final demise…
And Conroy could have saved him…
His quiet contemplations were interrupted rather suddenly with a brash knock on the door followed - rather swiftly - by the boy entering, bringing with him a tall, suited man who nodded courteously at Conroy.
Conroy observed this man casually, taking note of his well-groomed moustache and his clean – if not pristine – skin and fresh odour. He was clearly not a man of Barclay’s Hollow - that was for sure.
‘I’m not to be disturbed,’ Conroy growled, returning his gaze towards the fire.
‘But, this man is from the papers, Mister Conroy,’ insisted the boy.
‘Adam Collins,’ the well-dressed man announced, brushing past the boy and holding out an immaculately groomed hand for Conroy to shake. ‘I write for the Dorchester Gazette…’
‘Never heard of you.’
Collins smiled down at him. ‘No, I don’t imagine you have,’ he replied, his eyes scanning the back room, finding no literature of any kind. ‘But I have heard of you.’
‘Have you now?’ Conroy replied, signalling for the boy to leave them. ‘And what have you heard of me, Mister Collins?’
‘Well, not you, obviously. But I have heard about the death in the village and, from talking to the village folk, I know you are the man in charge of the investigation.’
‘The village folk, eh?’
‘Yes, Mister Conroy. Particularly a…’ he checked his notes. ‘… A Mister Tommy Watson was particularly keen to point me in your direction. He said you were the man to talk to about it all…’
‘Did he now?’
Collin’s eyes sparkled. He looked around briefly and, without asking, grabbed a hold of the nearest chair and pulled himself up next to Conroy, cradling his notebook and pencil in his hands.
‘If truth be told, Mister Conroy, I am only starting with my writing career. I was hoping you might give me all the gory details and tell me what your investigation discovered – give my readers something juicy to get their teeth into…’
‘Get their teeth into?’
’That’s right. Fire up the imagination so to speak. There’d be some good exposure in it for you, I don’t wonder. The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow Cracks The Case,’ he stretched out the imaginary words above his head. ‘Yes - I can see it now. If you’d allow me to follow every step of your investigation, it would give me some marvellous material…’
Conroy’s eyes narrowed. ‘Every step of the case? You want to be there for all of it?’
‘Well, it was Mister Watson’s idea…’
‘I bet it was…’
’But it would be so marvellous to see how the mind of the volunteer policeman works. Who knows, it could do wonders for all your people who live in this country. The Irishman Who Keeps The Peace In England, or something like that…’
He paused, staring excitedly at Conroy as though all his dreams were about to become realities. Conroy gritted his teeth and got to his feet.
‘No?’ repeated Collins.
‘You heard me.’
‘I did,’ Collins replied cautiously. ‘But I’m afraid I don’t understand. You don’t want me to write an expose on you?’
‘Absolutely not,’ Conroy fired back, strutting towards the door and flinging it open even as Collins remained seated in his chair. ‘I am damned if I will allow you to scrutinise my every move, report my every failings and use it as ammunition against my fellow countryman. I will not have it, Mister Collins, I will not.’
Collins cautiously got up from his seat, scribbling something in his notebook.
‘So, you expect to make mistakes?’ he muttered as he finished writing. ‘Is that because you already have, sir? Is it true that your neglect led to the death of this unfortunate man?’
Conroy barred his teeth.
Collins smiled, moving slowly towards the door making sure to never turn his back on Conroy for fear of being throttled.
‘I shall go, Mister Conroy,’ he said quietly, his eyes wary of every minute movement in the butcher’s body. ‘But be sure to know this - I shall find my story. If it is without your help, then so be it. But do not expect me to report kindly on you.’
He backed through to the next room, his eyes still firmly fixed on Conroy who loomed massively as he stepped into the doorway. Collins gave a nervous smile, which was followed by a sudden change in his complexion – almost as though a light had been lit in the back of his mind, bringing all the thoughts previously immersed in shadow into view.
’The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow,’ he repeated, his smile widening. ‘It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?’
Conroy didn’t reply.
Collins gave a small nod of respect and, with a brisk ‘Good day, Mister Conroy,’ he finally turned his back and sidled quickly out through the shop and out into the courtyard.
Conroy promised that he would give the boy a firm slap when he next came rushing through the door, but didn’t have the inclination to walk through the shop to do it in front of the newspaperman talking to the customers outside. Instead he prowled back into his back room and waited until the sound of Collins’ voice had all but disappeared, along with most of the customers.
He was ready to lash out when a young figure burst in through the door. By a stroke of luck, his reactions were not as fast as he would like and he had barely raised his fist when his eyes fell on the rather joyful figure of Hannah.
Breathlessly, she stared happily up at Conroy:
‘You…’ she said before taking one or two sharp intakes of breath. ‘You will not believe what I found out.’