For the next thirty minutes, Conroy searched the Rectory under Walcott’s watchful eye. For thirty minutes, he delved into every part of Walcott’s life, rummaging through cupboards and drawers, lifting bed sheets looking under pictures. When he reached the small library, he even pulled out all the books, hoping he might discover a secret panel hidden behind them.
But there was no sign of the wooden chest.
With every room searched and every crevice explored, Conroy had no choice but to accept defeat. If ever the wooden chest belonging to Reverend Babbington was here, it was long gone before his arrival.
To his surprise, Walcott seemed rather jovial as he led Conroy back through the maze of corridors and out to the front door. As he saw Conroy out he even joked:
‘You’re more than welcome to dig up the garden, if you wish?’
Conroy thought for a moment to fire back some witty response but, in the face of such a disastrous failure, he couldn’t find any other words than a simple utterance of gratitude to the vicar for his time. As he trudged up the garden path, Walcott’s voice sounded out from over his shoulder.
‘I know what you think of me, Irishman,’ he called out. ‘Just another Englishman. They think they all rule the world and have a right to look down on anyone who is different from them. But there are some of us with good intentions in our hearts. Whatever my treatment of you, know that I did it to do what is best for my village – for my people. Your presence here is causing anger and resentment that my people do not need. Whatever I do to you now, know that it is not out of any personal hatred for you…’
Conroy spun around to face him. ‘Justify it how you need to,’ he spat. ‘But no man deserves the misery that you are capable of inflicting…’
He continued marching up the path, intending to leave with the last word, but – to his surprise – he soon found the vicar was directly behind him, keeping pace right up until Conroy had reached the far lane.
‘Then perhaps this will let you see it my way,’ he announced. ‘Whilst I make no secret of my aversion to you, I do realise that it was I who appointed you to be the local constable. Regardless of my reasoning for doing so, we now find ourselves in a situation where our fates are inextricably linked. If you fail to find the man who killed Reverend Babbington, it will reflect badly on me as the magistrate who appointed you. So, whether I like it or not, I need you to succeed on this occasion.’
Conroy scoffed, stepping out on to the lane and turning back to face Walcott.
‘What happened to destroying me?’
‘Oh, I still intend to do that,’ Walcott replied casually. ‘But make no mistake about it, it would be just as hurtful to me if I destroyed you by making you fail in your duty as the village constable as it might destroy you. That is why, you must realise that I would never have summoned a newspaperman to come here to report on your investigation. I have little faith in your abilities – but if the rest of the country were to hear of that too, they would cease to have faith in mine.’
‘What’s your point?’
Walcott smiled thoughtfully.
‘It occurs to me that I have an appointment with Doctor Edison tomorrow morning,’ he said and then, seeing the surprise on Conroy’s face, added, ‘Oh, nothing to worry about, I assure you. Just a regular check up. But they do tend to last an hour or so, and I insist on them happening in the Rectory at ten o’clock.’ He flashed another smile. ‘I trust that even you can see the significance of that.’
With that, Walcott span on his heels and marched back up his garden path, leaving Conroy to ponder his words. The plan was formed in moments although, if Conroy was being honest, it wasn’t his plan at all.
With a spring in his step, he began to waddle back down the lane and into the centre of the village.
The sun was beginning to set in the sky and most, if not all, of the shops had begun closing up for the day. As Conroy moved through the deserted village, he took note of the Royal Oak, which was the only building that appeared to still be open. He had only stepped inside once on his very first day or arriving in the village and the reception he’d received had been so cold that he had never stepped foot in again.
But today felt like a new opportunity and, without thinking at all, he marched across the street and waltzed smartly inside the dark and dingy bar.
There were maybe a dozen customers. Chief amongst them was Tommy Watson who sneered viciously as he noticed Conroy walk smartly up to the bar. As each of the drinkers noticed Conroy, the room began to fall eerily silent – a silence that was broken only by the landlord, Daniel Smith, as he greeted – albeit bitterly – Conroy as he came to a stop at the bar.
‘What can I get you, Paddy?’
‘Whiskey,’ Conroy replied curtly, shooting a glance at the nearest customers who, shocked by the butcher’s attention, quickly returned to their hushed conversations.
Daniel brought the whiskey over and waited for Conroy to pay him. Conroy selected the coins from his pocket and hovered them over Daniel’s hand, causing the landlord to glance up at him in puzzlement intermingled with a dash of fear.
‘Is everything all right, Paddy?’
‘I need information,’ growled Conroy.
‘I got nothing for you.’
‘Disagree all you like,’ Daniel replied, reaching up and snatching the coins from Conroy’s hands. ‘I still got nothing for you.’
He began to walk away down the bar. As he did, Conroy could see his legs quivering with fear – a fear that was appeased by a gentle pat on the shoulder by Tommy Watson. When Daniel finally had the courage to return to Conroy’s end of the bar a few minutes later, the butcher had already drained his whiskey and was ready for another. Daniel dutifully fetched him another and returned with the amber fluid sloshing noisily in the cup.
‘This whiskey is awful,’ Conroy muttered, taking a sip without paying.
‘I get it from a Scottish guy,’ Daniel replied. ‘He brings me down a supply from Edinburgh every week…’
‘Scottish. Rubbish stuff.’
‘Not as good as the Irish stuff, eh?’ Daniel replied, attempting to be good humoured as he waited for Conroy to settle up.
Conroy drained his cup again before reaching into his pockets for a few coins. This time, instead of holding them over Daniel’s outstretched hand, he held them up to the light as though to examine them.
‘I understand you have three visitors staying in the pub at the moment.’
Daniel reached out to grab the coins but Conroy was too quick. Retreating back into the bar, he peered out at Conroy nervously before he finally said:
‘Two. What’s it to you?’
‘I heard three,’ Conroy replied. ‘Did one leave today?’
‘No one left, there’s only been two.’
‘That’s not what I heard.’
‘Well, you heard wrong,’ Daniel replied with a false façade of confidence. ‘A Mister Collins from Dorchester, who writes for the local paper, and a Mister Bottle from Plymouth.’
‘And what does he do?’
Daniel shrugged. ‘I think he said he was a sailor. He was due to leave last night but he decided he wanted to stick around for another day or two. If truth be told, I don’t think he wanted to go back to his ship.’
Conroy nodded, waggling the coins in front of Daniel again.
‘And what about Mister Armitage?’
Daniel’s eyes sparkled with shock.
‘Armitage?’ he repeated, pretending to think hard. ‘No, I don’t know a Mister Armitage, Paddy.’
A little way down the bar, a man stopped talking with Tommy Watson and turned to listen to what was going on. Conroy watched him from the corner of his eye, slowly tightening his fist in his pocket as the man inched closer and closer towards them.
‘I was told I could find him here.’
Daniel pretended to think for a moment before shaking his head slowly.
‘No, can’t help you.’
‘Well,’ Conroy replied, handing over the coins. ‘Perhaps, I could take a look at your register instead.’
‘No, Paddy, I can’t help you.’
The man down the bar shuffled a few inches closer. Daniel’s eyes darted down the bar for the briefest of moments before he turned and hurried back towards the safety of Tommy Watson.
With a smile, Conroy turned towards the advancing customer and let loose a disarming smile.
‘Mister Armitage, I presume?’
The man before him was slightly shorter than Conroy but - he imagined – more than capable of taking him on in a show of strength. He was reasonably well dress with a long, brown coat and large, leather boots that scraped noisily on the floor as he moved closer to Conroy.
‘Mister Conroy, is that right?’ His voice was heavy with a Scottish accent, but light with playfulness giving Conroy the immediate impression that his large build and intimidating manner was little more than a front. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’
‘Nothing good, I expect.’
Armitage shrugged. ‘People are terrified of you, truth be told. Englishmen always fear what they don’t understand…’
‘But not you,’ Conroy observed. ‘They seem to take to you quite well.’
Armitage laughed. ‘Of course they do. I’m the one they get their liquor from.’
Conroy opened his mouth and nodded his head in understanding.
‘You’re Daniel’s supplier,’ he muttered.
‘Aye, that I am.’
‘He said you came down once a week.’
‘Aye, I do. But this time I thought I’d take in the sights and hang around a little longer.’
Conroy’s eyes flickered up to Daniel who lurked at the far end of the bar, watching the interchange with nervous interest. Conroy looked back to Armitage.
‘Not quite right,’ Conroy replied. ‘What was it? Daniel wasn’t able to pay you so you hung around?’
‘Daniel?’ Armitage replied, shooting a glance back at the landlord. ‘No, he’s good to his word. Salt of the earth that one.’
‘So, why the delay? Really?’
Armitage smiled, tilting his head back to look down his nose at Conroy. With a wry look on his face he chuckled quietly and said:
‘Let’s just say, I had a few problems in Edinburgh that I need to wait to blow over before I can go back and carry on my business.’
‘You stole the liquor?’
‘No,’ Armitage replied spiritedly. ‘I buy it fair and square, perfectly legal. But, I don’t think the locals appreciate the way I transport it around the country.’
Conroy laughed. ‘You’re a smuggler.’
‘Yes, I am,’ Armitage replied, taking a step or two closer to Conroy so that his chest was squared up against him. ‘And what are you going to do, Mister Conroy? Arrest me?’
Conroy laughed again. ‘I couldn’t give a damn what you get up to. Smuggling, burglary – as long as it doesn’t cause me any work then you can do it to your hearts content.’
Armitage peered down at him curiously. A moment later, an excited smile appeared on his face and retreated back to his original position.
‘In that case, we should get on fine.’ He signalled to Daniel and called out. ‘Two more whiskies. One for me and my new friend.’
The atmosphere in the pub went so deathly quiet that the slightest rustling in the street outside echoed around the walls. The villagers, staring wide eyed and dumbstruck, watched as Daniel brought two whiskies to Conroy and Armitage, who clinked their mugs together and downed their liquors in a single gulp.
‘Here’s to a long, happy relationship,’ announced Armitage, wrapping a hand around Conroy’s back and patting him firmly on the shoulder.
Conroy nodded appreciatively. ‘Given our new friendship, I wonder if you might provide me some information.’
Armitage seemed generally enthralled. ‘Me?’
‘You strike me as a man who hears things and knows things.’
His companion thought for a moment before nodding confidently.
‘Yes, I suppose you could say that,’ he agreed. ‘What do you want to know?’
Conroy leaned a little closer, beckoning for Armitage to do the same. Armitage was barely a few inches away from him when he whispered:
‘What can you tell me about Mister Bottle?’