Conroy fetched Hannah a cup of water. By the time he returned to the back room, she was sitting cross-legged on one of the chairs, tapping her knees excitedly as she tried to regain her breath. She drained the cup in seconds and placed it carefully on the floor by her feet, as Conroy settled back into his chair and waited for her to recount whatever it was that had caused her so much excitement.
‘I think I found him,’ she said, hardly able to contain the delight in her voice.
‘The man in grey?’
‘Yes,’ she replied, then thinking a little harder: ‘Well, maybe. It might not be him, but I am sure it is your murderer.’
Conroy leant a little closer.
‘Who is Edward Bottle?’
Hannah smiled playfully at him.
‘He is one of three people who paid for rooms in the last week,’ she declared and then, as though to clarify, said: ‘One of the girls I used to go to Sunday school with is now a maid in the Royal Oak. I overheard her telling someone that it had been quiet for a while, but that three gentlemen had taken up rooms in the last week. One had been staying there for a week, but the other two came to the pub yesterday. Of those two, Edward Bottle is the one who sounds most likely to be a murderer…’
Conroy’s eyes narrowed.
‘Alright, I’ll buy it – why?’
‘Well, Katherine – that’s my friend – she was telling the cobbler’s assistant that Bottle terrified her, that there was something in his manner that didn’t make her feel right.’
‘Hardly conclusive,’ Conroy replied, leaning back into his chair.
‘No,’ agreed Hannah, ‘but his actions are. You see, I did a bit of snooping when the landlord of the Royal Oak wasn’t looking. According to his register, Edward Bottle paid for a room yesterday afternoon and was due to stay for one night…’
‘You can read?’ Conroy interrupted, a sudden interest taking hold of him once again.
Hannah looked at him with mild irritation for the briefest of moments before her elation overtook her again.
‘Girls can read sometimes, you know,’ she replied, crossing her arms overdramatically. ‘I taught myself from my brother’s books. He wasn’t much interested in schooling so I took his books and learnt it myself.’
‘And where is your brother now?’
‘Army still I guess,’ she replied. ‘Mother says he’s fighting in the Crimea but I think he’s been posted to Ireland or somewhere easy like that…’
She stopped mid-sentence, her eyes glazing over with fear and shame as she looked up at Conroy.
‘Not that I mean any offence,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m sure Ireland has it’s problems…’ She paused again. ‘I mean, I’m sure it’s lovely, but… well, since the Famine we haven’t heard much trouble from there, have we? It’s probably a wonderful place now…’
‘It’s all right,’ Conroy replied, smiling as sweetly as he could despite the painful flood of memories that coursed through his mind in that moment. ‘Tell me more about Mister Bottle, Ciara…’
‘Hannah,’ the girl replied sharply before returning to her previous thoughts: ‘Well, the odd thing is that Mister Bottle suddenly changed his mind. He doesn’t want to leave Barclay’s Hollow today anymore – he paid for another night’s stay in the Royal Oak. Now that is suspicious.’
‘Possibly,’ he replied. ‘Although it is just as likely that he decided to stick around after he heard about the murder. After all, if his plan was to murder Babbington and then flee the village, he’s hardly likely to deviate from that plan when everything had gone so right – that only risks him getting caught…’
‘Unless everything didn’t go to plan…’
Conroy nodded. ‘Perhaps.’ He turned his head towards the empty fire and thought for a moment. ‘What of the other two? Did you hear any mention of them.’
Hannah’s eyes flicked up to the ceiling as she thought about it.
‘There’s a Mister Armitage,’ she said slowly. ‘He’s the one who booked up for the week – he’s due to leave tomorrow morning. I only know from him what I read in the register, so he can’t be all that bad otherwise Katherine would have mentioned him.’ She paused to think again. ‘And the only other one was a man called Collins. Katherine thinks he’s a nice enough bloke – very smart apparently…’
‘Collins? Adam Collins?’
‘That’s him,’ she replied. ‘He writes for some paper out of Dorchester. I’ve never heard of it but – then again – I don’t really read the papers. Funnily enough, I passed him on my way up to see you. He was asking after you – he wanted to write a story about Mister Babbington’s murder and how you were going about solving it…’
Conroy’s eyebrow rose. ‘And what did you say?’
Hannah smiled. ‘I said you were lovely,’ she replied, her face suddenly looking confused. ‘He didn’t seem too happy with that answer. I can’t imagine why.’
Conroy laughed. ‘I can,’ he replied, imagining Mister Collins as he marched to and fro across the village trying to gather as much dirt as he could on him. He wouldn’t have to look far. ‘You didn’t tell him what you were doing for me, did you?’
Hannah looked genuinely disgusted.
‘Of course not,’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m the soul of discretion, I am.’ She thought about it a little longer. ‘Besides, my mother would kill me…’
‘Quite right,’ Conroy replied, laughing a little.
It was only then that Conroy’s mind dawned with a sudden realisation. He couldn’t imagine how he hadn’t noticed it before but, now that he had, it opened up a whole world of new possibilities.
He turned suddenly towards Hannah, leaning in close to her and whispering hurriedly:
‘He booked the room yesterday.’
‘Mister Collins,’ he replied. ‘You said that he booked the room the same day as Edward Bottle.’
‘Mister Collins told me that he had come down here to report on the story of Babbington’s death,’ he explained. ‘So why did he book a room the day before it happened?’
The realisation hit Hannah far quicker than it had for Conroy. In an instant, her hands leapt up to her mouth as she stifled a small scream. She stared intently at Conroy with wide eyes and open mouth as she slowly lowered her hands back down again.
‘I spoke to him,’ she whispered. ‘I spoke to him and he might have… He might have killed Reverend Babbington…’
’Might is the word,’ replied Conroy.
Hannah remained still for a moment, her mind racing behind those bright blue eyes. ‘But how can we prove it was him?’ she asked. ‘If he’s following you around, won’t he realise when we start finding proof against him.’
Conroy nodded thoughtfully.
‘He may have been tipped off before hand,’ he mused. ‘By the real murderer - I mean - or by Babbington himself. If the man was so convinced that he was going to die, he might well have informed the papers as insurance.’
‘That wouldn’t look too good on you,’ Hannah said.
Conroy nodded again.
‘True. But if Collins was summoned here by someone else, there’s only one person I can think of who would know enough of the details and have enough influence to get the newspapers involved.’
‘Who?’ Hannah asked, her eyes sparkling with the thrill of it all.
‘Reverend Thomas Walcott,’ Conroy replied.
Hannah nodded her approval, not that Conroy needed it but it was nice to have his thoughts appreciated. The headache was returning and, with such close scrutiny of his actions, he didn’t want to make a delicate situation worse by a hasty and ill-conceived decision.
‘And what should I do?’ Hannah asked.
Conroy’s mind flitted to the Royal Oak and the three visitors who resided there for the present.
In a town as close-knit as this, it was almost certain that one of them was the killer.
But which one?
Conroy turned to Hannah.
‘Presumably whilst Mister Collins is out trying to catch me out, his room will be empty, I suppose?’
Hannah slowly nodded her head.
‘So, if a brave young lady was able to slip inside and search his things, she wouldn’t need to worry about being caught, right?’
The excitement in Hannah’s face hit fever pitch. With a great leap of enthusiasm, she flung herself out of her chair and fell on to Conroy, hugging him so tightly around his neck that it felt as though she were trying to remove his head altogether.
‘Oh, thank you, thank you,’ she cried out, finally letting go and dancing a small jig in front of him. ‘I won’t let you down, I promise…’
‘Just don’t get caught,’ Conroy interjected. ‘I’ll be in enough trouble for even talking to you about this sordid affair, let alone getting you to break some laws on my behalf.’
‘Well,’ she replied happily. ‘At least the only person who can arrest me is you, right?’
Conroy smiled but he didn’t reply. A wave of doubt crossed his mind as he watched the happy girl dance about his back room, pretending to flick open drawers and cupboards as she searched for imaginary objects. It was only when she finished searching under a particularly taxing, imaginary bed that she stopped and glanced up at Conroy, her face filled with confusion once again.
‘What exactly am I looking for?’
Conroy smiled. ‘A gun. Bullets. Something that could be used to pick open a lock. Anything like that will do.’ He thought about it for a moment longer. ‘And a wooden chest. If you find one of those, give that a good search.’
If anything Hannah’s face looked even more confused that before.
‘A wooden chest?’ she repeated. ‘Why do you say that?’
Conroy smiled but didn’t answer her.
He had just thought of something wonderful.