A Shire Serial - A Lord of the Rings Story

Blood... No doubt in his mind. Not ink, nor dye or even spilled soup—blood. He rubbed the coagulated substance between his fingers as if feeling a fine wool coat. Mangled bits of hair were mashed in it as well; short tufts that could be from anything. Solid brown all the way through, but due to being mixed with the blood, he couldn’t tell what sort of animal coat. It seemed odd that no one heard or saw anything since it was a foot-wide puddle in the middle of the road. 

                “Did I do right by calling on you, Constable?” Mr. Bracegirdle asked him while wringing his hat.

                He rubbed the material on the dry dirt and off his fingers. It stuck to them like week old pie to the pan. Standing up, he removed his handkerchief to wipe off the lingering remnants.

                “I don’t know, Welton,” he scratched his head with his clean hand. “Could just be from a dead badger based on what’s left.”

                Mr. Bracegirdle slapped his leg with his hat and made an exasperated sound. “There ain’t no way it’s from a badger! I’m telling ya that one of my cattle is missing.”

                Constable Brownfoot made a placating expression to keep him from flying off the handle. “It could be, is all I said. You have my word that I will make inquiries and keep an eye out for any malfeasance regarding your herd.”

                Welton straightened up and put his hat on to look somewhat presentable. He sighed. “Aye, I apologize, Constable. It’s just the most upsetting thing to lose something and then have this greet you not but a stone’s throw from your home.”

                The Constable nodded and legitimately felt bad for Welton. However, it remained unlikely he would find anything since folk rarely stole in Hobbiton, let alone the Shire. Last story he heard was from Mr. Bilbo complaining that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins tried to run off with his silverware. It was more likely that Welton had miss-counted or, due to his age, forgot how many stock he really owned.

                He pulled out his ledger and jotted down a quick note on how many cattle Welton claimed he had. Ten Holstein Friesians, eight Angus’s, five Shorthorns and three Jersey’s—one of which was missing now.

                 “When something turns up, you’ll be the first to know.” he said, returning the ledger to his vest pocket.

                He made his way back from the River Field by Hobbiton road. It was a little under a league to his home, but he preferred to walk rather than ride. This gave him time to clear his head and reflect on his present investigation. In this case there wasn’t much: congealed blood left overnight with bits of brown hair that could be from a cow, to the old Hobbit’s credit. The more likely scenario, it was from a rabbit that grew too confident and ventured out at night when predators prowled.

                Coming to the fork in the road, the constable turned left instead of carrying straight. The Mrs. didn’t expect him for another hour or so and he could use an ale at the tail end of a warm day. It would serve as both quencher of thirst and reward for catering to the suspicions of a cranky codger.

                The usual sounds of cajoling greeted him as he stepped up to the door. He put on his most serious of expressions as he opened it. The first person to meet his gaze was Gaffer Gamgee. The Hobbit had just cheered with the others over something, but dropped his jovial appearance as he saw the constable. All the others around his table followed suit. The rabble died down and he could hear a lonesome cricket burrowed somewhere in the back of the room. All eyes drew to him as he stood akimbo and scanned the entire lot. He shook his head at the display before him.

                “Ahhhh. They call him Mr. Brownfoot!” one of the Took’s yelled.

                “No it’s Constable Brownfeet!” a Brandybuck retorted.

                “You’re all wrong!” Gaffer stood up and raised his cup with a smile like a toastmaster. “It’s Mr… Constable… Brownfoot.”

                The Constable couldn’t contain his false sense of seriousness as he burstin laughter. All the others did the same and threw back a swig of their respective drinks.

                “Barkeep, fill it to the top with just a tad of froth!” he shouted with a nod and semi-salute.

                It always surprised him how this place could elevate his mood in an instant. The walls had a soft and comfortable look to them—even though they needed a new coat of paint. The wooden posts at the bar, the beams that held the ceiling together and in select load barring spots could stand to get a polish. The floor creaked when a mouse ran across, which meant it needed to be replaced, but it all felt like a second home to him. Like a good marriage, he accepted the old gal as she aged and wouldn’t have her any different.

                He retrieved his mug and took an empty spot at the table with Gaffer and four others. There were two Tooks, a Brandybuck and a Chubb.

                “So tell us what our fair Constable is up to on this fine summer day?” Gaffer asked with his usual jovial tone.

                Mr. Brownfoot drew back a long swig that took half his ale with it. The golden liquid burned his throat just the right amount and had a touch of a bitter finish to balance out the sweetness of the malt. Letting out a satisfying yawp, he plopped the cup on the table. “I don’t know if it adds up to anything interesting, gents.”

                “Oh come now. Anything is more interesting than what everyone else is talking about.” Berter Took came back, sounding like he had been there for a while.

                “What’s everyone else talking about?”

                His eyes widened in an exhaustive expression. “Mr. Bilbo’s birthday party. What else?” The group let out a collective moan.

                The constable chuckled and took a quick drink. “Well, to take our minds off that, I suppose I better tell you what I was up to. But no promises that you’ll be happy I did.”

                Gaffer grinned and motioned for him to get on with it.

                “Down by old Mr. Welton’s place he had a blood patch about yay big.” He held his hands out about two foot or so wide. “Startled the old timer silly this morning when he stepped right in it not but a hop, skip and a jump from his front gate.”

                “Blimey! What do ya supposen it was?” the youngest of the group, Tincy Chubb asked.

                “Welton’s convinced it was from one of his cows that some brazen bastard took from him last night.”

                “That’d be a hard feat with how large and loud those things are.” Gaffer chimed in.

                The Constable shook his finger in acknowledgment. “Not to mention how clumsy they are and the fact they all had bells on them. I don’t know what to tell the codger other than that he probably miscounted his herd and some poor rabbit met his demise there.”

                “Rest his soul.” Gaffer said while clutching his pint close to his heart and comical expression.

                “Well, probably best for you to humor him for a few days and come back with that explanation after he’s had some time to figure that out for himself.” Tincy said.

                “Couldn’t have said it better myself, Tincy.” The Constable winked at the young lad.

                “It was an interesting story until you solved it in five seconds.” Gaffer said, rolling his eyes sarcastically.

                They all laughed and shook their heads. Returning to his ale, he could have finished in one gulp, but wasn’t ready to go home yet and didn’t want to buy a second round. His stomach grumbled as the ale settled in its emptiness. He thought to partake in some of the bread, cheese and olives the others had let sit at the middle of the table—he knew his wife would have something ready by the time he got home. Besides, the townfolk had voted her best cook in the Shire four years running and it would be a punishment to curb some of his appetite with pub snacks.

                “Speaking of cases you can solve in a haste. Did you here young master Dowry Bolger ran off after telling his mother that he wanted to fight a dragon?” Gaffer broke the comfortable silence.

                They all shook their heads.

                “The young sprite does this on occasion and always goes to the same spot in Binobole Wood. After a day or so, famished and bitten half to death by skeets, he comes home.” Gaffer laughed as he seemed to be picturing the young Hobbit in his mind. “Apparently he’s been out there two days now and his mother comes to me worried sick. I told her the spot, because supposedly she didn’t know, but she won’t go see for herself.”

                “Why not?” asked the Constable.

                “She went on and on about how he shouldn’t be doing this to her, that he should know better and to come home without her having to dirty herself up by meandering through that wood.”

                All of their eyebrows jumped up and returned quickly, clearly antagonizing the silly situation.

                “Between Dowry and old Mr. Welton we certainly have a fair amount of nefarious behavior in the shire.” Japin Took said while twiddling with piece of cheese.

                “I’ll take those any day over anything that I hear about happening beyond the borders of the Shire.” Tincy came back with, seeming argumentative.

                Gaffer nudged him in the side with an irritated look. “It was a joke, Chubb.”

                The Hobbit looked to each of them for confirmation and his face got redder as it became apparent he wasn’t as quick on the uptake as the rest. Gaffer slowly slid Tincy’s beer away from him and he didn’t protest. “There we are. Just give a little time before throwin’ back another one.”   

                The Constable took his own ale and finished off the last gulp. It was as satisfying as the first and he thought to have another, but his wife would be expecting him.

                “Gents.” he stood up and tipped his cap, which was greeted by a chorus of boos from the others because they knew what that meant. “It’s been a pleasure as always.”

                “There he goes… Mr. Constable Brownfoot being all responsible and shaming us drunkards in the process.”

                “No… no. I ain’t brought no shame that you hadn’t carried in here in the first place, Gaffer.” he said with a smile.

                Gaffer and the others burst out in laughter while holding their mugs in the air. Their laughter soon turned to a song as the Constable made his way through the door. As he exited it sounded like several more tables joined in. He didn’t recognize the tune, but like all tavern songs it wouldn’t be hard to catch on.

Making his way back to the road home, he had to stop to admire the Water. No matter how many times he saw it, he always thought it was beautiful. Especially now in the low light of dusk. The subtle reflections of trees, grass and birds flying over calmed him in the night. The pleasant aromas coming from the bakery and other establishments next to the Green Dragon made this walk his favorite. A gentle breeze blew past, cooling him just the right amount in the summer evening. It remained until he made it the front gate of his home were a more pleasant aroma greeted him.

Passed down from his mother’s father, the home was a bit large for his wife and him. When their sons were growing up it was perfect—just enough room. Now that both lived on the borders of Buckland, they had hardly enough furniture to fill the spare space. His recently painted fence reflected the moonlight. The garden, his responsibility, had reached its full potential several weeks ago. Roses, tulips, daisies and more were arranged just the way he liked them—in long meandering patterns around the whole of their home. Last year he had set new stones for their path and they had finally started to look settled. A pair of circular windows were on opposite sides of their door of the same shape.

Stepping up to his door, he turned around. The torchlight on every home, the fireflies, and the moon illuminated the town just enough for his aging eyes to make out every establishment. Being on the hill, he could almost see down to the River Field where he’d been earlier today. A hearth-like warmth traveled through his chest, making him shudder. Tears tugged at the back of his eyes. He smiled as memories from each home, business and field weaved through his thoughts. There was no denying—he loved the Shire and everyone who called it home.

“Well, well, Mr. Brownfoot. Fancy seeing you on my doorstep at this late hour,” the all too familiar voice said behind him.

The Constable turned to see his wife wearing a knitted green frock and a subtle smirk. She was far too beautiful for a hardened looking man like himself—at least he and the rest of the folk in Hobbiton thought so. Her hair curled gently on her shoulders was usually brown, except this time of year when the sun dyed it a more auburn shade. The pale skin of hers gained a slight golden hue and would return to its snowy complexion in winter. She maintained the shape of a younger woman and one of whom could give birth well into her eighties if it were possible.

He took a step back and straightened up to a gentlemen’s stance. Slowly bowing, he met her gaze. “Might I trouble you for hot meal and pleasure of your company, madam?” He smiled from ear to ear. “You won’t have to waste a word on a dolt like me—just the sight of you is all a Hobbit could ever ask for.”

She hesitated for a moment, wearing the same smirk. Taking a deep breath, she motioned him in with a slight teetering of her head. “I suppose I could spare a plate for a dolt like you.”

He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek and the warmth returned to his chest. She whapped him on the side of the hip as his kiss lingered too long. “Get in here before I sick the dog on ya.” She snorted, unable to keep up the charade any longer.

“That mutt ain’t moved in seventeen months,” they both laughed and returned to their normal demeanor with each other.  

Shutting the door, he removed his vest and hat as she went to the kitchen to set their table. He stretched up toward the sky and felt a tightness in his left leg. Must have been the combination of the heat and walking—he hadn’t traveled that far by foot in one day for a very long time. Looking over to his favorite chair, he spotted that she had already packed his evening pipe; Old Toby—his favorite in fact. Both his slippers and evening coat had been cleaned and laid out as well. Curious, he thought. She knew his habits, but it was uncommon for her to have them prepared.

He made his way through their common looking Hobbit living room and foyer and into the kitchen. Annavelle, his wife, moved past him with a plate of asiago bread, another one of his favorites. A delightful smell, trailing her, caught him quick—not the food—perfume. One of lilac and spring rain. She rarely wore the stuff because she didn’t need to, yet for special occasions.

He sat down at their table for four with only two place settings, which meant no guests were coming—so why all the trouble? A new aroma caught his attention. This time it was the food. She removed the lid to his dinner. Mincemeat pie. Another one of his favorites. She topped off his cup with a golden ale and sat down in the seat next to him. She started to eat while he just looked at her suspiciously. He could tell she knew he stared at her and was doing a good job of avoiding his glance. After almost a minute, he cleared his throat. She turned to him with the most innocent look he had seen from her in years. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head as if waiting for her to say something.

“What?” she asked looking as befuddled as she could manage. “Do you not feel like mincemeat tonight? I could cook something else for you.”

He chuckled and leaned back in his chair impressed with her stamina to withhold whatever she held from him.

“What on earth is the matter, Padder?” she exclaimed, holding onto her exasperated look as well as she could.

“You know I’m a Constable for a reason, dear.” he said, patting her hand.

She let out a sigh with a rolling-the-eyes like smile. “You win…” She gave in. “I suppose you noticed the perfume, pipe and slippers did you?”

“The coat too. All very nice touches, my dear.” He padded her hand again—this time poking a little fun at her.

“Now that I’ve made a fool of myself, I suppose I should just ask you now.” she said, sounding genuinely irritated about being found out.

“Ask away, my dear.” he replied while digging into the mincemeat pie.

Her smile dissolved into a serious look. Catching her tone, he put down his spoon.

“I spoke with Elnie Bolger today. I should say, she spoke with me. I couldn’t get in a word edgewise.”

Padder rolled his eyes as he knew Elnie and most likely where this was going.

“Apparently young Dowry has been gone for two days and hasn’t been seen by a soul.”

He shook his head and looked away.

“Why aren’t you taking this serious, Padder?”

He looked back at her and raised both hands in a reassuring gesture. “I know all about the boy and Ms. Bolger. He’s simply having a bit of fun out in Binobole Wood.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You know where he is?”

He nodded. “She even knows where he is.”

“If she did, she didn’t say anything about it today.”

“It’s just a game of adventure he plays.”

She looked befuddled for a second. The fact that he was playing a game, his mother knew where he was must be challenging her powers of reasoning.

“He’ll be back in a day or so. You’ll see.” he said as he went to take another bite.

She rubbed his hand softly, halting him. He met her gaze. She gave him those tender eyes and hopeful smile she was fond of giving.

“You want me to go trapesing through that wood looking for that boy?” he said, knowing the answer already.

Her same expression and hand rubbing remained. It worked as he felt his resolve crumble like a grass fort. “You know loving you is the easiest and most difficult thing of my life.”[JB5] 

She smiled and kissed his hand. “Thank you, Constable.”

 

The sun had yet to clear the trees of Brockenmoring or Bridgefield as he hit the road after a longer than usual kiss from his wife. It would be a long trip today and he wanted at least one part of it to be at a comfortable temperature. Nobody toiled in the fields or moseyed about yet, not even the bakery folks. Hobbits tended to be late risers though.

The Clematis flowers had started to bloom, which meant it would get hotter for a few weeks to a month and then autumn would tap summer on the shoulder. Their petals appeared white when inspected up close. When they blossomed in clusters it made them look like silver waterfalls dropping down hills, falling over fences and rooftops. Their intense fragrance still held strong from the night; more pungent than in the day, they were nocturnal flowers if there were ever such a thing.

His legs felt good even though he had walked a fair amount yesterday. He would double that today. Taking a swig from his water pouch, he admired the rising sun illuminating the scenery one minute at a time. This was far better than thinking about how sore he would be tonight and how irritated he would be when he found the Bolger boy. It’ll be the last time that little shite goes off for an adventure—I’ll make sure of that.

He pulled out an apple from the pack his wife had prepared last night. Biting down, he tried to simmer himself for Dowry remained a young lad. He kicked up his pace, wanting to beat the rising sun. His strength held firm as he passed The Hill within two hours, Overhill thirty minutes after that and reached Binobole fifty minutes later.

“Dowry!” he yelled as he stepped into Binobole Wood. The only thing that responded was singing bird—a mockingbird by his guess. 

The miniature forest appeared no different than any other in the Shire. It had plenty of trees and a cacophony of creeks, critters and bugs. Scanning the ground, the only tracks belonged to a mix of deer. Lucky for him very few ventured into Binobole, so there wasn’t much a chance of contending with multiple prints. He stayed on the only northern path, which he was sure Dowry would have done. His eyes constantly scanned as he walked. Sooner or later a print had to come through on some soft dirt or muddy patch.

He stepped and his right foot sunk into the dirt, almost to the tops of his toes. Halting immediately, he inspected everything for ten feet in front of him.

“There you are, you tricky bugger!” he exclaimed as he spotted a footprint about three quarters the size of his.

 He shook off the dirt from his foot and went to spot the next one. The first one was a cockeyed print that pointed northeast—away from the path. Looking up, the woods got denser in that direction. Minding some sharp rocks, he headed toward it with his eyes glued to the ground. Another print, then another popped out about fifteen feet from each other. He followed them and the occasional outline of Dowry’s mischievous feet kept going northeast. Going for about a twelfth of a league the dirt and the possibility of prints stopped at a rocky mound shrouded by taller trees. Just the place a young tot would make camp.

He made quick work of the two foot stone wall of sorts. The mound seemed almost a perfect circle. It had, from what he could see, several alcoves that would make good cover in a rainy night. The first one was covered in cobwebs. The second one had no distinct characteristics. Turning around a collection of protruding rocks, he stopped. A large circle, the size of four Hobbits, of ash discolored the gray stone. It was a fire pit that looked like it was going last night. None of the boy’s belongings or supplies remained close by. No others would be camping out here though.

“Dowry Bolger!” he yelled and a slight echo reflected off the rocks. “It’s Constable Brown. Please come out. I’m to take you back to your mother.”

A slight rustling came from behind him. After a second, a pair of squirrels popped out fighting over an acorn. He turned back to the camp and yelled out again. Again, nothing came from Dowry. It was possible the lad had moved onto another spot this morning or possibly headed back to Hobbiton. Padder hated for that to be the case. All this time and work for the little punk to be emptying a pint at the Green Dragon when he got back.

The Constable ground his teeth and looked for something to the contrary. Back in the corner of the alcove something dangled that didn’t look like it belonged. He walked to it and saw that a pack had been jammed into a natural cubby. Pulling it out, he went through it and found: two cooking pans, a fire starting kit, bread, an empty bottle of wine, small portion of salted pork, and a pocket knife. On the backside it had the initials DG inscribed.

“Thank goodness.” He breathed a sigh of relief.

He went to walk to the other side and drew back his foot quickly. His brow furrowed as he lowered down. Running his hand across the ground, he brought his fingers up. Blood. Coagulated and sticky with hair mashed in it. “Dowry! Show me that you’re alright. This isn’t a game, lad.” he yelled out into the wood. Nothing returned.

“Dowry! It’s not a crime to kill game. You’re not in trouble. I just need to bring you back home is all,” his heart beat sped up as he waited for a response.  

He returned to the blood patch: too much for a squirrel or even a brace of conies. Turning his head up, he breathed a sigh of relief. He chuckled as the grave thoughts that crept into his mind dispersed like water on a hot pan. Dowry’s hand hung over a ledge about ten feet above him. Nice little sleeping spot. Smart lad.

Eight slim slats had been carved into the wall as makeshift footholds. He looked down at the empty bottle of wine. No wonder the little drunkard didn’t respond. He jammed his feet in the first two footholds and ascended the stone ladder.

“You had your poor mother worried sick, lad.” he said as he climbed.

Reaching the second to last slat, he could just reach Dowry’s hand. He shook it. “Come now, lad, I’m going to need your help getting you down.” The boy didn’t make a sound.

“Blimey, you must have more alcohol with you up there or you’re a lightweight.” he said shaking Dowry’s hand again.

He remained holding it as he climbed up the last two slats. “Come now, lad, give me so—,” He shot back as a rat tugged at Dowry’s severed hand. He instinctively slapped it away to the right and his feet shuffled out of the slats. “No!” he hollered as careened down.

Something cracked as he collided with the ground. Air spewed from his chest as he gasped in pain. His side cringed and turned quickly to dispel the throbbing. He came face to face with Dowry’s hand. A gasp burst out from his mouth as hurried away from it. Calm yourself, Constable!

“In the name of all that’s sacred! Who could have done this?”

A crack in the bush came from behind him. He jumped to his feet and went for his knife. No knife, just his belt. He had forgot to bring it. He didn’t think, he didn’t hesitate—he sprinted out of the alcove and back to the path. The panted breaths deafened any sound around him. The greenery turned to a blur. He raced through mud and whipping branches. He discarded his pack to gain more speed. He ran until his mouth went dry and his feet bled. He ran… and he ran… and he ran.

 

A crowd of Hobbits huddled together in the road turned toward the Constable. Each of them gave him a curious look. Sweat poured down his face and made the front of his shirt look like it was just pulled from the river. Both his pant legs had a rips at the knees and dirt covered everything else. He slowed down to a fast walk as he approached, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy.

“Afternoon, Constable Brownfoot.” Berty Hornblower tipped his cap to him, while still looking a bit stunned.

Padder could only manage a wave in acknowledgment as he wheezed from the non-stop running.

“What is the matter, Mr. Brownfoot?” asked a woman whose name he forgot. “You look like you’re about to keel over.”

The comment went through one ear and out the other. He picked up his pace to the only place he could escape to—his home. A number of other passersby’s rubbed their chins, scratched their heads or dropped their jaws at his appearance and hurriedness. It didn’t matter to him. There were bigger problems to think on, to play out—to solve.

He barged through their gate. A part of his clothing ripped, he didn’t stop to see, as it caught on one of the posts. The front doorknob almost didn’t turn as his sweat soaked fingers twisted. Shutting the door with a resounding thud, he dropped to the floor. Annavelle came quickly around the hallway and her already surpised looked turned to shock as she took in his disposition.

“What the devil happened to you?” she asked with legitimate concern as she removed a towel from her apron and started to pad his sweat soaked hair.

“I—.” The word came through his heaving. “I… just need a… minute… to catch my breath…” it came out in spurts as he clutched his chest. The air stung his lungs.

Annavelle picked up a small book off their side table and fanned him rapidly. It took a good three minutes for his breath to calm to a point where he felt like he could talk. After all the fanning and dabbing, his wife looked like she could use a rest.

“Padder, please tell me what happened?” She sounded concerned at having to wait so long.

His head drooped as the weight of what took place just a few short hours ago slammed his heart. “I went in the Binobole to find Dowry…” The boy’s name came out broken.

“Please, Padder, tell me.” Annavelle’s words were soft and her stare lightened.

“I went into the Wood.” he started slowly as to retain his composure. “I tracked his footsteps to small rock encampment. His fire, his pack and belongings were still there—only he wasn’t.”

Annavelle shook her head and wiped a trickle of sweat before it could drop into his eye.

“I came across a large patch of blood just a few feet from his campfire. When inspecting it I saw him…” He took in a breath as if he were going to dive to the bottom of a lake. “Only what I thought was him. I climbed up to a ledge where it appeared he was still sleeping. When I got to the top all I saw was—was,” his lower lip quivered, “his hand.”

Annavelle drew a hand to cover her open mouth. “What do you mean his hand?”

The Constable shook his head, still not fully believing it himself. “I mean just his hand. Somebody or something had lopped it off…”

Her shriek startled both of them. Tears welled as her panicked stare peered through him.

“I can’t be certain.” he began again, regaining some of his composure. “That this was Dowry Bolger’s hand… everything points to that conclusion though.”

“We have to tell his mother.” the words jumped out of Annavelle.

Padder thought for a second and then shook his head slowly. “No. We must wait. There is still a slight chance that this is someone else.”

“You said yourself that it was Dowry’s.”

“It appears that way—yes. However, what if we tell her and then the boy strolls up tonight in a drunken stupor? Then what will be said of us?”

She went to respond, but held just before.

“Either way, someone is dead—murdered rather.” The words shocked him as they came out of his mouth. The thought plagued him the whole way home. The mere utterance out into the world and beyond his temples made it real though.

Coming out of her trance, Annavelle’s face turned pale. “You said there was another blood patch down near Welton’s place yesterday… That means there are two murders.”

Padder pulled out his ledger and reviewed the notes from yesterday. A puddle of blood over a foot in circumference. Tufts of hair, dark brown, mashed sporadically throughout. “It appears that way…” He went to Annavelle as the tears started to come.

She trembled as he pulled her in tight. “There, there, darling. This isn’t for certain yet. Remember, there ain’t been a murder in the Shire for—for… so long I can’t even recall.”

“That doesn’t matter.” she pulled her head away from his chest, making a sniveling noise. “It don’t matter if there hasn’t been a murder in so long. This could be men, dwarf, elve or any manner of creature… Maybe something Mr. Bilbo had a fracas with on his adventures.”

“I don’t know how much truth lay in his stories… Besides I think if someone or something along those lines made their way into the Shire, let alone Hobbiton, folk would’ve seen it and sounded the alarms.”

“Then it is worse then.” Her entire face quivered as she wound up to continue. “It’s one of our kin that’s committed these crimes. These—these heinous crimes,” the tears streamed down now and had enough steam to go for half an hour.

“It appears that way.”

“What are we to do, Padder?” The words chopped by her sobs.

He stared out their window that looked into the middle of town. A couple of children played tag just beyond their fence. Jasup and Minkiel Bracegirdle were enjoying afternoon tea while cozied up on a spotted pall. Two fellows directing livestock had moved out of the road to let a little girl and her mother pass. The Water was even being used for its natural purpose as a pack of Took boys ditched their clothes and jumped in. How could it be one of us? The question, but more so the answer ate at him just thinking it.

Annavelle’s arms tightened around him as his did around her. Graver thoughts ripped through his mind. They threatened the very thing he couldn’t bare to lose. The very person he held.

“We must be ourselves, Annavelle. If there is a murderer among us, he needs to think he remains anonymous… as much as that may pain us. I will divulge to whom I must to capture this fiend. There are a few that can be trusted with such grave information. Few—who will keep it to themselves.” Rubbing her auburn hair back, she looked up at him. A clear sheen from the tears made the blue in her eyes glisten like crystals. “I’m sorry that you must carry this burden. For your safety though. Pretend that everything is fine. That you know nothing. We must let them gain a sense of false confidence… they will misstep. Then I will have them…” He met her gaze. “Can you do that for me, wife?”

A scared yet strong look graced her face. “Yes… I will…” “Please be safe, Padder…” She pulled him in closer. “I love you…” her soft eyes looking into his softened his rigid demeanor. “Do you love me?”

Their lips came together in a gentle embrace. “It appears that way.”

 

Not a chance. I’ve seen him pass out whilst gutting a fish. The man doesn’t have the stomach for such a thing. Padder eliminated the fourth person he passed on the road. A strapping young lad, whom he had only met once, came his way. Patro Boffin. The family’s wealth proceeded him. All manner of clothes he adorned were of the most expensive the Shire had to offer. His face pulled tight into a scowl as he walked by the Constable. Strong enough, appears serious enough. Wealthy tend to show their guilt too often. Arrogance leads them to want to hint at what they’ve done or accidently give it away. For that I must eliminate him—for now.

Over the next league he eliminated seven more Hobbits from consideration; six male and one female who looked as though she could hold her own in match of fisticuffs. The process of elimination varied amongst the group: three of them had been away the past three days in Bree picking up some supplies. Through his conversations with other folk, he knew this to be true. Two others had passed out in the Green Dragon the night before and the barkeep allowed them to sleep it off on the porch. Burdy Brownfoot, third cousin, twice removed on his side, had a fever the past week and was bedridden the entire time. Padder knew this because his wife had heard about it from Burdy’s sister who played the role of caretaker. That just left the woman. He eliminated her because simply, she was a woman.

Padder shuffled to the right to avoid a fresh cow patty. It took over twenty steps for the smell to dissipate. Those boys could have been lying about going to Bree. Having three to commit a murder would make things easier. He scratched his ruminating head. Passing out at a pub provides a pretty solid alibi. Truth be told, no one was around to see if they left and came back. Surely Burdy’s sister left him at some point to tend to her own home and children. A few hours is all one would need to slip out and do the dreadful deeds. And the woman… She looks formidable enough to overpower Dowry and whomever else was murdered… His back tingled as if a spider crawled up it. Who was the other victim? The first victim in fact.

He shook his head at how foolish he had been. How did he not think of that last night? It was a distressing day to say the least; a severed hand, almost succumbing to dehydration…. murder… No one had been reported missing though. Who indeed could the second victim be?

“Constable.” Padder leaped forward and stumbled to the ground.

His ribs winced as he rolled over a rock. Turning to inspect who felt it necessary to sneak up behind him and whisper in his ear, he rolled his eyes as he saw the culprit. “Damn it, Drager! What you doin sneaking up on me like that?”

The man stood a head taller than Padder. He wore a formal black suit with a dark gray vest and gloves. His wispy silver hair billowed in the breeze. Standing akimbo, his face made it look like he could only snarl, unable to from discernable words.

“You owe me thirty silver pennies, Padder.” Drager said in a wooden tone.

The constable chuckled as he got to his feet and dusted off his clothes. “Not on this again are you?”

“Only after what is rightfully mine.”

“Rightfully yours? You do live in a dream world.”

Not a hint of anger or emotion showed in Drager’s disposition. Only the same scowl he always carried.

“It was my workers who saved the lot of you when the levee broke and the town flooded. You owe for yourself and your homes.”

“You used that crises to massively overcharge them. They paid you what they could. All of us helped that day, not just your folks.”

“It matters not. We were there first. Our actions saved you all.”

Padder scoffed. “With dramatics like that, you should play the lead in our next production of the tragedies.” he walked up to the man and broke that invisible barrier of too close. Both the Hobbit’s chests touched as he stopped and looked up to him. “Bother someone else. I haven’t time for your foolishness. There are more important matters that require my attending… Besides, my home is on a hill and needed no saving.” his shoulder nudged Drager as he turned and continued on his way to Welton Bracegirdles’.

Upon arriving, he noticed a problem—the stain had been diluted and attempted to be washed out. He crouched down and ran his hand along the patch. It was still red, but it looked more like a bottle of wine had shattered there. Looking up, he tried to see if there a trace of blood leading to or leading away existed. Nothing though. That meant the victim was not dragged or moved. They were killed and then disappeared without a trace like Dowry.

“I thought you were done with it, Constable.” Welton made himself known, standing on his porch.

Padder dismissed it with a simple hand gesture. “You were right to think that. I just had an idea and figured I would give it a second look.”

“Do you still think it was a badger?”

“Not at the moment no. I figured if you said one of your cows had gone missing, that I should assume that’s the case.”

“Glad you came to your senses.” Welton quipped with no signs of it being a joke.

Padder chuckled to himself. Looking down at the stain it did pose a possibility: a large splotch of blood, in the middle of the road with no trace coming from anywhere else, so the killer impaled his victim with something, let him bleed out and then somehow moved his body without spilling another drop. It didn’t hold up.

A few tufts of hair remained glued to the road by the hardened blood. He ran a hand across them. The washing and the sun had made them even coarser than before. What does this mean? What is there to know here? Scratching the back of his head, he stopped. With the back of his hand he ran it across the hair on the road. Then he ran it across the back of his own head. They’re the same! This hair is from a Hobbits head. The breakfast of five eggs, ten strips of bacon and toast with orange marmalade shifted in his stomach. Why would that be there? What did he do to them? The food lurched upward as a possible outcome dawned on him. Did he… skin them? He tasted the eggs as he thought it. His heartbeat increased as this case grew graver.

After a moment he pulled out his ledger. The tip of the pencil lead broke as he pressed too hard. Jotting it down that the victim was possibly skinned made his own hair stand on end. How that bit of information could help him solve the case he did not know. However, he needed to note everything that came to him. It could all be sorted out later.

 

A midday ale felt heavier than at night. Padder finished off his second and made a motion for a third. Perhaps evening drinks felt better to him because it capped a long day’s work. There was still so much to do and three beers in would have its affect at some point. It felt like everything grew harder and he moved sluggishly the rest of the day. He wasn’t drinking in the middle of the day for no good reason. Someone always came in for a draught around this time.

The waitress dropped off fresh pint and went behind the bar. She doodled on a piece of paper, might have been a puzzle or game. Not much else for her to do. A modest group of drunkards and usuals, that would barely fill a caravan, were dispersed in several different spots.

The door swung open with a group of rabble rousers—Tooks mostly—and the person he waited for.

“Mr. Constable Brownfoot.” Gaffer gave a ceremonious bow in his direction. “Haven’t seen you in this early since your boys up and moved out.”

“Come join me.” He tried not to sound too anxious.

“Let me get a frothy one first.”

“I already got one for ya.” Padder slid the pint over to the other side of the table.

Gaffer eyed him curiously. “I don’t know if I want to be beholden to the Constable. Could lead to a dangerous favor.”

“No strings, my friend.”

Without hesitation, Gaffer plopped down and took a long swig. He finished with a resounding aww.

“Although, I do have something serious to talk with you about.”

“I thought you said no strings?”
“I aint forcing ya to do something.” Padder looked from side to side. Nobody laid within earshot. “You may be the only one I can trust.”

Gaffer settled back into his seat and furrowed his brow. “I…” It looked like he wanted to make a comical retort, but seemed to catch Padder’s serious tone and expression. “Alright, Constable. How can I be of service?” The elder Hobbit said as he straightened up.

Padder proceeded to tell him the entire chain of events over the past two days. Everything from the first patch of blood to poor Dowry Bolger’s severed hand. He explained how he had kept everything under wraps because there was no telling how the town would react. Also, who or what was responsible for the heinous actions had yet to be revealed.

“I told you all this for a reason. No way I can do this alone. I need help—more specifically—yours.”

Gaffer’s grip had tightened around the pint handle throughout the story. It turned beat red as the request for his service came. After taking a deep breath, he spoke. “Not in a hundred years could I fathom something like this happening here. The Shire is the safest place in Middle-Earth… Now we have a murderer. What times are these we’re livin in?”

That very same question plagued Padder since seeing Dowry’s demise. “I know I ask a lot, my friend. I’ll understand if you say no.”

Gaffer’s head turned cockeyed. “Are you out of your mind?” He stopped cold and paused for five seconds almost as if he expecting Padder to answer it. “I don’t want to live in a town where something like is happening. The answer is yes.”

“Mind you. This might put you in some danger. And you can’t tell the Mrs.”

“She don’t care what I do anyhow.” Gaffer waived him off.

“I am grateful for your help. Consider yourself deputized for the duration of your service.”

Gaffer straightened his collar and pursed his lips in snooty way. “I like the sound of Deputy. Very becoming of a man of my stature.”

Padder chuckled. “Well, that’s why I confided in you.”

“What’s our first plan of action?”

Padder went to speak, but the door swung open and Berter and Tincy as well as a few others burst in. Their satisfied faces turned to jubilation when they spotted Gaffer and Padder.

                “Mr. Constable Brownfoot and our dear old Gaffer!” They burst into laughter and headed their way.

                Tincy crouched down, about to hop onto the bench, but Gaffer held up his hand. “Not right now, lads. Find another table for the time being. Important business discussions going on here.”

                All of them looked as though he cursed their mothers. Tincy was caught with his backside inches from dropping onto the bench. Sensing this level of insult, Padder spoke up. “Take no offense, boys. We just need a few minutes to discuss a delicate matter. Have a pint on us.”

                Like shades being drawn their faces lit up at the prospect of a free drink. They carried on to another table and proceed to call the waitress over and then motion to Padder and made a paying gesture. He nodded at the waitress and came back to Gaffer.

                “I haven’t much for us but to go back to Binobole and scavenge for clues. In all honesty I didn’t allow myself the proper time to inspect the scene.”

                “We better head out there soon to get plenty of light.”

                “Agreed.”

                “I’ll settle up with our drinks and we can push off.”

Padder thought for a minute and didn’t want to arouse any suspicion. “Let’s invite the boys over for a drink and then we can push off.”

                “You’re the boss.”

                They waited a few minutes before inviting them back over. It gave them a little time to shift their moods after the talk of murder.

                “Why it’s about time, gents!” Berter scolded them with a half look of fayed irritation.

                All of them settled into their seats. A few more Browns had joined along with another Took and three Brandybucks. The Constable and Gaffer were the oldest by far in the rowdy group. It made Padder feel good though. Nothing could replace or replicate the lightning bolt of youth.

                “Have I got another loony story for you, Mr. Brownfoot.” Tincy cut through the noise of the others. “It appears that our friend Mr. Dowry Bolger got some company today.”

                His ears turned up like a fox’s hearing a jackrabbit moving in the brush. The serious expression overpowered the fake one plastered on his face. “What…” He failed to sound casual. “What do you mean?” He recovered slightly.

                “It turns out that the brazen Mr. Dowry made an impression on one of his dear friends, Mr. Samon Bracegirdle,” All of them besides Padder and Gaffer snickered at the boy or the situation or both. “Yep, he told his folks he wanted adventure and buggered up to Binobole just after second breakfast. I’m sure they’re having a lovely time of fencing with sticks and launching an all-out assault on the vicious and ferocious brown squirrels.” The burst of laughter engulfed the entire pub. Beer shot through the nose of one of them—clearly not expecting the joke.

                Padder and Gaffer stared at each other. A head nod was all that was needed for a clear message. The Constable stood up in the midst of the cackling. “Boys, I’m sorry but Gaffer and I will be having to push off now.”

                A chorus of boos and retorts came their way. Gaffer waived them all off. “You fine young gents will be better off without a couple of geezers cramping your knickers.”

                “Yes but you make us look half decent by comparison.” Tincy barely finished the joust before he and the others erupted into hysterics.

                Gaffer and Padder waived them off again as they collected themselves and exited the Dragon. The sun still sat high. Heat alone would make the trek difficult after a few beers and no food—the humidity would make it awful.

 

The fading light of the setting sun crested over the Ered Luin to the west. Gaffer heaved in gulps of air while it felt like a mole bored into the middle of Padder’s forehead. The heat and humidity had taken its toll and the sunset came earlier than expected. It was a good thing that they had grabbed a pair of small lanterns just in case. Their subtle glow would have to make due as only minutes of sunlight remained. Dust flew up from their dragging feet.

                “Do you think we’re too late, Padder?” Gaffer managed to get out between heaves.

                “It’s not much further. We can’t think about that now.”

                The Constable led them down the path and into the Wood. Even at night the trail to Dowry’s secret spot burned into his bones. All manner of sunlight vanished the deeper they went. One by one the forest creatures began to sound off. His head pounded with each step. It would have to wait. He ignored it and pushed harder. “Come on, Gaffer. It’s just past this next turn.”

                “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggh!” A scream erupted close.

                They stopped, wildly scanning the terrain. Darkness. More darkness. Trees. Tiny shadows of critters moving about. Another scream. His stomach dropped to his feet. The skin tightened around his bones to the point of tearing.

                “To the campsite!” Padder ordered.

                They sped around the last turn and came to it. Everything looked like he left it yesterday.

                “Do you see anything?” Padder whispered to Gaffer.

                “Nothing.”

                “Search quickly! We have to find the boy.”

                Padder went to the rocky encampment. Going straight for the alcove, he stumbled over the former fire pit Dowry had made. The soft yellow glow of the lantern illuminated the entire cavern. He searched the ground for any fresh sign. All that remained was the old stain. Up top.

Slamming his foot into the cutout, he climbed up. He put the lantern handle in his mouth and he removed his knife; the killer could be up in the secret spot. There’s no surprising him. He must know I’m here. He made the last step up and slashed back and forth with his knife—expecting an ambush from above. All he could feel was the thick air. Here it goes! He raised the lantern and brought light to the cubby. Nothing. Nothing but the empty pit of rock.

                “Padder! Come quick!” Gaffer yelled somewhere in the distance.

                The Constable descended as fast he could and sprinted out of the alcove with the lantern leading the way. Appearing like a firefly caught in a jar, the other lantern shone through the trees to the left. He slalomed through the brush between them.

                “Careful now.” Gaffer said calmly, a little out of breath.

                Padder stopped a foot from it. Another patch of blood. This one appeared twice the size of the other. Fresh. If he had to guess, the scream belonged to Samon Bracegirdle.

                “Damn this thing to hell!” he cursed under his breath as not to alert anything nearby.

                “Poor lad… if only we’d been a minute quicker.” Gaffer’s entire body sunk down.

                Padder lowered to get a closer inspection. Tufts of hair embedded in the blood. No traces leading in any direction. How is there nothing? How do they move the body without leading us to them?

                “No manner of Hobbit did this.” Gaffer shook him from his thoughts. “There is too much blood. To kill and be off so quickly. It has to be animal of some sort.”

                “You think an animal did this?”

                “Who do you know that could do something like this—so efficiently?”

                Padder pondered for a seconded. Everyone he knew raced through his head. The mental lineup proved fruitless. Never in his darkest nightmares could he believe a Hobbit capable of such horror. The wind blew a warm gust, but to him it felt like winter’s bite. 

                “Whatever or whoever this is… they are always a step ahead. We need to figure this out before the next kill.”

                “How will we do that?”

                “There is one person who needs to answer a few questions.”

 

After taking four steps into his home he realized how rapt his body was. Every step made his feet wince. The pounding in the middle of his forehead had only increased. Either exhaustion or the dirt from the road caused his eyes to bat. He went to collapse into his favorite chair when his wife came into the room.

                “Don’t get comfortable, Constable.” She halted him from sitting. “I know you. I’m certain you haven’t eaten since breakfast.” she motioned him into the kitchen. “Get some food in you before dozing off—and that’s an order.” A haphazard smile painted across her face.

                He obliged. His body teetered back and forth to avoid the shooting pain in his feet. The kitchen smelled wonderful—nothing new. However, about fifty pie crusts were stacked anywhere she could fit them. He smiled at her tireless and in this case thankless work. Pulling out the chair, he lowered into it gingerly as his back felt little tight. She placed a simmering bowl of stew and hearty loaf of bread in front of him.

                With exhaustion overwhelming and the thoughts of poor Samon Bracegirdle he almost broke into a weeping spell. “You’re too good to me, my darling Annavelle.”

                She smiled. “It’s only soup, Padder.”

                Shaking his head, he looked her in the eyes. “No… it’s more than that. You’ve been cooking and prepping all day while hiding the fact there is a murderer on the loose.  Not to mention you stay up hours after everyone else is asleep to have dinner ready for me.” His eyes welled to the brim with tears.

                Annavelle sat next to him and hugged him around the neck. Shaking her head, she spoke. “I like cooking and doing it for Bilbo’s birthday is even a greater pleasure. It was difficult to hold the secret in while with the other ladies… that is until I remembered what you’re doing. You have to find this person or creature, you had to see Dowry’s severed hand and a pool of his fresh blood.” she cradled his face. Her strong hands felt tender on his weathered cheeks. “It is the least I can do…”

                A warmth, a soothing warmth traveled through his chest. Their eyes fixed on the others. The feeling turned to an emptiness as his thoughts switched to what happened a few short hours ago.

                “I’m a failure though.” His voice cracked on the third word. “We lost another young man today. Poor Samon Bracegirdle…”

                A solemn look of reserved concern washed across Annavelle.

                “We heard him scream… we were so close. And yet… too late.” the lad’s face came into his mind’s eye as he closed his real ones. Opening, he returned to his wife. “That’s the thing… the entire time I’ve been too late. Whatever this thing is, it has outsmarted me so far. I’m a fool. An old man past his useful days. A we—.”

                “Stop it!” Annavelle said in a firm tone she had not used in years. “I will not sit here and listen to this in the home we made, the place where you taught our very sons powerful lessons of life that will carry them to happiness and health. You are my husband and I will not let anyone—even you—degrade the man I hold dear. The man who has guided our family and countless others with a calm strength that resonates more than you know… Yes things are bleak.” Her scowl hardened.

                “Yet they are bleaker for the poor soul committing these atrocities. Because soon he will fall to you. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day soon, he will succumb. And then he will realize he has nothing… and was caught by someone who has everything.”[JB6] 

                Seldom. Seldom moments caught Padder off guard where his thoughts stalled. This was one of those moments. The warmth returned as his wife’s words bubbled into his consciousness. She had to be right—at least partly. He wasn’t done. There were still moves to make. A number of scenarios existed where he could outwit and catch this beast or person—now one in the same after such murders.

He ran his palm against her face still rigid. “Well, Mrs. Brownfoot…” His lips turned into a stunned smile. “How long have you been holding onto that speech?”

                “I was saving it for just the right occasion. Started to think I might never use it.”

                Some woman I married. Full of surprises that little one is.

                “Now eat your soup before it gets cold.” she said as she got up and tended to a pie crust teetering on top of the teapot.

                Still stunned, he looked down at the soup. A thread of steam rose from the middle of it. “Yes ma’am.”

 

A solid rap against the front door came just as Padder finished the last piece of bacon. Annavelle cleared the table as he went to answer it. A pleasant surprise greeted him as he opened it. Gaffer stood there with a fresh lit pipe and look of determination in his face.

                “I didn’t think I’d see today.”

                Gaffer yanked the pipe out of his mouth. “And why is that?”

                “It was a disturbing scene last night. Being that this is not your problem, figured you’d avoid me to give the impression you wanted no further part in this.”

                Gaffer’s eyebrows jutted up in unison. “That’s where you’re wrong… it is my problem now. Damn proud that it is too.”

                Padder nodded slightly, but he truly was glad to have a partner in this. “I suppose we better get going then.”

                “Suppose you’re right.”

                Padder went back to kitchen, kissed his wife goodbye and the two headed down the road. The hearty meal and the few hours of sleep he managed to get did have their affect. His body remained sore, but all pain had subsided. Another thing made him feel better, Annavelle was going to take on more party responsibilities to keep her occupied. That meant less time to get caught in one’s head about the murders and pass the time constructively. 

                “Where are we starting today, boss?”

                “I had a thought last night. Although, I’m not dismissing the fact that this could be a wolf or some terrible creature, there is, however, one Hobbit I want to question.”

                “You’re the Constable, but I’m further convinced that we are dealing with a vicious creature.”

                “No doubt whoever is doing this is a vicious creature. Just depends if they have claws or take tea at three.

                Gaffer snorted and then looked like he remembered that Padder referred to a killer.

                “Who are we going to question then?”

                “Mr. Drager.”

                “Huh… he gives me the chills. Why him though?”

                “He’s been hassling and even threatening all sorts of folk about how they owe him money for his chaps’ help during the flooding.”

                Gaffer let out an irritated noise. “Everyone was helping everyone during that disaster.”

                “I told him the same thing, but he’s convinced that folk owe him money. Both Dowry and Samon’s families lived down the hill and their homes were greatly affected. This gives a fella like Drager motive.”

                “That’s good enough for me. What do you need me to do?”

                They skirted around five Hobbits carrying a large banner with red lettering on it. Padder assumed it had to be for Bilbo’s party. It just dawned on him the party was the evening after next.

                “All I need you to do is to back me up and make sure we don’t miss something in his answers.”

                “I can do that.”

They turned left to the northeast end of the hill. The town grew busier as they got closer to Drager’s home. It seemed that everyone had a part to play in Mr. Bilbo’s party. Someone carried decorations, another pushed a cart full of dried meats, and a particularly large Hobbit had two rolled up party tents on his shoulders.

Drager’s home turned up a bend and sat in the furthest northern part of Hobbiton. Like his personality, it seemed to go out of its way in keeping its distance from the others. No garden, just a long white fence twice as tall as everyone else’s. The door was painted such a dark shade of blue that it appeared black in the dark or low light. Smoke rose from the chimney, which meant he hadn’t left for the day.

Padder clubbed the door intentionally to catch Drager off guard. The interrogation had already begun. The door slowly opened. Drager stood in the same outfit as the day before—although it was nicely pressed which meant he probably had a closet full of them. His dour expression remained as he looked over both of them for several moments without saying a word.

“We’ve come for a word, Drager.” the Constable spoke first, realizing that Drager seemed to be posturing to control the conversation. “You can either invite us in or we can barge in.”

His grey eyes glared at Padder. Neither his face nor body made the slightest movement. The Constable went to make a move when Drager made a slow retreat behind the door to invite them in. Padder strode through and made a quick left turn, seeing a desk and three chairs. Not waiting, he sat down in one of the chairs that faced the desk. Gaffer stood and waited for the slow moving Drager to skulk his way in. The office was clean and devoid of any unkempt piles of papers, trash or anything unnecessary. The desk and every piece of furniture looked as though it had been recovered from a forest fire. Dark as ash, yet looked as strong as oak.

Drager settled slowly into his chair, flattened his hands together and brought them to his chin. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”

“Where were you last night?” Padder wasted no time, trying to rattle the man.

Drager took an exaggerated breath in while looking off into nowhere. “I was here hosting a small get together. Why—“

“I’ll ask the questions.” Padder cut him off.

Drager shifted in his seat slightly. The Constable smiled as this showed a little irritation—something he could use.

“Who was here? When did they leave?”

“Just a few of my employees celebrating a fine business year.”

“The Constable asked, ‘when did they leave.’” Gaffer broke in right on cue.

Drager’s gaze remained on Padder as he halted his response. The Hobbit knew how to remain calm in an unexpected situation. “They left an hour after supper.”

“What’d you do you after that?” the Constable barely let him finish before asking the question.

“I retired shortly after as I always do.” still the man’s face remained stoic.

The Constable let out a snort. “I’ve seen you pattering about long after that like a rat in the kitchen. Even heard that you’ve paid certain folks a visit past night fall.” he speculated.

 Padder watched closely for any movement, any twitch or crease in his face to tell him that man was shaken. Drager’s breathing held its normal cadence, his lips stayed locked, his brow held creased and his eyes remained glued to Padder’s.

“The exception—not the rule.” The man finally spoke. “On occasion I must visit clients or—.”

“What about debtors?” Padder interrupted him for a second time. “Or those whom you perceive to owe a debt? Like myself or Gaffer here. Make any house calls for those?”

It happened. Too quick for an untrained Hobbit. Drager’s right eye, ever so slightly, twitched. 

“What about Dowry Bolger or Samon Bracegirdle’s family?” he questioned before Drager could say anything. Pressure had to be applied while the man appeared vulnerable.

Drager’s breathing quickened a half beat. His eyes widened a fraction.

“Answer him now.” Gaffer came in with perfect timing.

Could Drager have done this? Is he stumped or just outthinking his answers? He’s clearly hiding something. Give me anything I can use against you. For too long you’ve made people’s lives harder here. The man’s lip lowered and his mouth opened. Padder leaned forward, waiting for the condemning words.

“I think I will require my barrister to continue this line of questioning.”

All his momentum halted like a pack of wild horses just before a cliffside. His face flushed and felt hot. The urge to leap over the desk and beat the answers out of Drager gnawed on his restraint. He smiled as he stood up and leaned forward so his nose grazed Drager’s. “Very well. Have him here by tonight for questioning.”

Drager’s grey eyes glared right back into Padder’s. He pulled back and gave an insulting smile. Gaffer and the Constable walked out of the house. They waited until they exited the gate before either spoke.

“Do you think he did it?” Gaffer said out of breath.

“I don’t know…” Padder replied while analyzing every part of the interrogation. “He’s hiding something for sure. I don’t know if it’s murder or not. Perhaps he knows something.”

“He’s a creepy bloke who doesn’t care for anyone but himself and his money. But murder? Is he really capable of such a thing?”

 “I never use to think anyone in the Shire was. Now… I have to believe any of them are.”

Three older ladies sat on the yard of Shiry Roper slowly turned their heads up in unison and studied the two of them as they passed by.

“The truth remains that three Hobbits are dead. Someone or something is responsible. We must consider everything until the evidence eliminates it.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“We still don’t know who the first victim was. And nobody has reported a third person missing, right?”

“Right.”

“They must be from outside of Hobbiton.”

Gaffer considered this for a moment. “Should we start in Tuckborough, Waymoot, Tookbank?”

Padder shook his head. “No. They’re close enough that we probably would have heard something. Best start with Michael Delving first.”

“What makes you think we should go west?”

“The first murder happened on the southwest end of Hobbiton. More honestly it’s just a hunch.”

Gaffer looked up as the sun burned off the remaining cloud. “Long walk… gonna be a hot one today.”

Padders gaze remained on the road, blocking out all the bustling around him. The party didn’t matter to him. “We must do this.” he said with a voice as cold as stone.

They carried on through the town without stopping to engage pleasantries. Gaffer took care of the addressing the Hobbits who greeted them by giving a slight head nod. The only thing Padder heard was his own voice in his head—get to Delving, get to Delving.

As they came to Welton Bracegirdle’s home he took his eyes off the road ahead for a split second. The blood stain of the unknown Hobbit had all but disappeared. Heat, feet and time had weathered it like a red dress that had been passed down a few generations too many. We will find out who you are… who did this.

It was going on two hours since they passed out of Hobbiton and since they had said a word to each other. Padder could feel Gaffer wanting to say something for the last five miles. It would be easy to oblige him, but he liked the focus, the mission. It kept the thoughts of the three dead from hacking at his determination. Silence the mind and let the body and instinct guide until the time when the head became necessary again.

“I’d be willing to believe that a Hobbit did this.” Gaffer couldn’t hold out any longer.

“Hmm… what about a Hobbit thistle mist?” Padder replied, still focused on the path ahead.

“You are set on getting to Michel Delving aren’t you? I said, I’d be willing to believe that a Hobbit did this.”

“I’m sorry. My mind isn’t working properly now.” He lied. “So you do think a Hobbit could have done it?”

“It depends though. I think in order for this crime to be pulled off in the manner in which it has been there would have to be two assailants.”

Padder’s gait slowed. This thought never occurred to him.

“Now I got your attention…” Gaffer chuckled. “Two scheming bastards that pick their moments, their victims and whose going to do it.”

Padder bit down on his lip. “That is interesting. It could explain how they moved the bodies so quickly and two versus one would made the odds of succeeding much better.”

“I still hold out that it was a wolf or something of that nature, but we should consider this.”

The Constable’s head cocked to the right. “One hole in this is that we would have found another set of footprints. I only saw one on my first time in Binobole.”

“I thought of that and perhaps the other would follow behind in the same prints to make it look like only one had been there.”

Padder turned to Gaffer. “I should have taken you as a deputy sooner. You have the mind for this line of work.”

“Don’t be saying that until we’ve cracked this case.”

Padder shook his head and laughed. “Fair enough.”

They returned to silence for the remaining two hours walk. No time for rest or a drink. That could be taken care of when they got to the town. Padder’s hardened glare and focus returned. The road to Delving was one of his favorites to take in the beauty of the Shire. Not today though. The victims deserved his undivided attention.

Passing by the last hill, they came to the town. It had a different look to it than Hobbiton. No lake or major water source within the grounds. A statue of Marcho and Blanco Fallohide sat in the center with four roads leading off it in each of the cardinal directions. The brothers actually founded the Shire. It had been years since he had seen it. Every time it made him swell with pride. Although this time greater business than enjoying a pint at the Bird and Baby Inn or seeing the Mathom House existed.

Padder directed them right toward the town hall. He sought their Sherriff, if they had one. In all honesty he didn’t know. The building’s white pane had lines of cracks running all across it. Its shudders weathered, remained in fairly good shape. A rooster weather vane topped the lone spire at the top of the roof. Gaffer sped ahead and swung the door open—it gave off a comical high pitch squeak. A small woman with hair pulled back tight, wearing a snug flattened dress sat behind a desk that weighed at least fifty stone.

“How can I help you, gentlemen?”

Padder gave a formal nod. “Good afternoon, miss. I was wondering if you could direct me to your person in charge of law enforcement.”

“You will have to tell me some names before I do that.” she widened her eyes.

“My apologies.” he pointed back. “This is Gaffer Gamgee and I am Constable Padder Brownfoot of Hobbiton.”

She straightened up and pursed her lips. “I had no idea we’d be expecting the Constable of Hobbiton. Must be something important.” She laughed like a toddler that had just thrown her dinner on the floor.

“Yes… Well, anyway. Would you tell your man in charge that we would like to see him?”

She let out an exaggerated sigh. “Wish I could, but the second Sherriff is out till next week.”

Padder went to respond, but held for a second. “I’m sorry, did you say second Sherriff?”

The toddler laugh returned, paired with an overt eye roll. “Yes um. First Sherriff died a few years back without naming a successor, which according to the town charter must be named by him. We went years without anyone until someone set fire to the Purdy Stump, that’s a naughty house if you get my meaning.” She winked at them. “Then Havel Stickpoker, funny name, declared himself the second Sherriff to get around the charter. He vowed to make sure no one set fire to the place again. Of course it did happen again six months after they rebuilt it.”

The Constable’s jaw teetered side to side as he tried to decide if the woman was being serious. A smile covering her entire face formed as she stared at him.

“Well…” He had no idea what to ask or say. There was no assurance she could even tell time. Giving up, he cut straight to the point. “Do you think you could help me then?”

Her wide eyes grew wider. He waited for a response, but nothing but a slight humming came from her.

“All I need to know is if anyone’s gone missing around here?”

“No.” she said with the same smile as before.

Padder nodded. “Well, th—.”

“Wait, yes!” she interrupted and then burst into an even more concerning laugh than before. “He’s long gone though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“His wife.”
“His wife what?”

“That’s why he’s gone.”

Padder looked back at Gaffer who appeared just as dumbfounded with the situation and the woman as he was.

“Could you tell us where she is? We would like to talk with her.”

“You’re handsome! I mean her name is Vem Dopple, she lives on the Southside of town. Got her name on the gate. Caaaaaaaan’t miss it!”

His mouth held agape for a moment. “Thank… thank you, ma’am.” Padder turned quickly to avoid anything further with the woman.

“Make sure to come see me tonight. I’ll be dancing at the Purdy Stump just after suppertime!” she yelled to them as they went for the exit.

They shoved through the door without turning back and made haste toward the south end of town. Just like the crazy woman said, a big sign with the name ‘Dopple’ hung from a violet painted fence. The home was quaint, yet charming. The garden remained finely tilled and planted. Everything from the steps to the door was painted with vibrant colors. This could be interesting. Padder knocked gently as to not startle the woman whose husband had gone.

“What do you want?” A woman’s voice came from the other side of the door.

“Ma’am, my name is Padder Brownfoot, Constable of Hobbiton. I come to ask some questions about your husband.”

A series of five locks unlatched one at a time and the door opened slowly. Vem stood akimbo with a look of caution aimed at the two of them. She wore a long sleeved floral dress that was actually made of flowers petals for the garment and stems as the sticking. Padder expected a younger woman than her. Her gray hair had streaks of violet, red and pink running through it. She had the face of someone ten years younger. However, the pruned condition of her hands gave away the fact that she exceeded sixty years old.

“You come to laugh at me do ya?” she said as her eyes studied them.

“No, ma’am. Just to ask you a few questions and try to piece something together is all.”

She breathed out a long sigh as her expression stayed the same. “I know your name and know you to be a gentleman.” she said motioning to Padder. “But I don’t know you.”

“He’s my second in command on this case and assure you he takes all these matters as serious as I do.” Padder referred to Gaffer.

“Alright then… come in and make yourself comfortable on the sofa.”

As they entered, the décor caught their eyes immediately. Like the outside, a cacophony of colors lined the walls with a collection of old crests, paintings, and a various knick knacks—all placed in random spots. They didn’t appear to be hers originally, most likely purchased, collected or found. Padder and Gaffer sunk into the sofa. It creaked as they settled. Padder couldn’t help but search every corner of the home to see what interesting thing may lay there.

“I’m an artist—as you might have guessed.” Vem directed the statement to Padder.

“I met no offense by the staring. Is unique is all. Very… beautiful actually.”

Her lips pursed to a faint smile. “Thank you. You’re kinder than most.”

Vem held a confident posture; shoulders pulled tight, back straight and her left leg crossed over her right in a firm manner. Yet her eyes and face failed to follow suit. Padder read their expressions to say, “Help, I’m lost.”

“Mrs. Dopple.”

“Vem.” She corrected.

Padder cleared his throat. “Vem, we are very sorry to ask you such questions about your husband’s disappearance. We are only hoping to find out exactly what happened to him.”

“He didn’t leave me.” she caught the two of them off-guard. “That’s what everyone says. I’m sure that vapid nitwit, Vulvinda at town hall, must have remarked the same.”

Padder nodded, agreeing with the assessment of the young lady. “How do you know he didn’t?” he asked, trying to sound as respectful as one could asking that question.

“I know him! He loved me!” Both her eyes turned to glass as tears beckoned. “They all said he was too young for me or I was too old for him—really just the same insult either way.” She shook her head. “People are always so polite and complimentary to your face and drag you through the mud behind your back… Are you a married man, Constable?”

“I am.”

“Then you know better to comment on a woman’s age.”

“I do.”

“After the town’s harsh words made it back to me, I could barely make it through a dinner party without crying my eyes out. Not knowing who my friends were and who would gossip after we left.” She turned away and made a noise like the tear-dam broke. “I know it was hard on Javen too.” Her back remained turned.

Padder glanced at a silver and gold antique on the side table next to him. A picture of a young man, forty years her junior, wearing a nice blue suit and a brown vest, posed with a large smile. This must be Javen… He looks genuinely happy I must admit.

“We had a love few understood and none shared. It transcended age and life experience. I’ve always been a younger person at heart than on the outside. He saw that.” Her voice cracked as the last word came out. She reached out slowly and picked up a polished green rock. She ran her hands over it repeatedly. “He was my rock. All artists need some semblance of balance in their life. My head was always in the clouds, the moon, the bottom of the lake, the depths of the forest or beyond the borders of the Shire…” She sighed. “I always had him to bring me back—to remind me how glorious the moment was. A man of few words because he only needed a few to say what needed to be said. We were meant for each other.”

“I believe you.” Both Gaffer and Vem turned and stared at him.

“Which part?” she said with a look of only partial belief.

“All of it.”

She held her stare for a moment. Replacing the rock, she wiggled into her initial seated position.

“Tell me about the day he went missing.”

Her lips pursed. “It was a lovely summer evening after a lovely summer day. We spent the entire afternoon in each other’s arms. I’d talked about gathering some Clematis flowers for a piece of living art I wanted to make. He insisted that he would find them. He walked out that door.” She pointed at the front one. “Never came back…” Her voice weakened as she finished the sentence.

Padder sat back in the couch and brought a hand to his chin. The thought to probe her further about their relationship played on him. Something told him what she said rang true though. He followed the instinct.

“Did anyone hold any grudges against Javen? Did he owe anyone money or anything of that nature.”

She shook her head slightly while thinking. “No. No, I don’t think so… No, I’m sure of it that he didn’t.”

Padder took in a deep breath for the next question most would deem offensive—especially at a time like this. At the least it appeared insensitive. It must be asked though.

“Vem, during times of loss we, as Hobbits, have a tendency to look overly fond at the ones who have passed on. However good natured your Javen was, one does not simply disappear for no reason. Please try to look at him as another person—one who had flaws, disliked by some and had the capacity to do wrong. In other words, he’s like the rest of us. So please, be honest and tell me anything that might help us find him.”

For a few seconds she looked like she wanted to order them out of her house. Her look softened a smidge and she stared holes through him. Padder held his inquisitive gaze, waiting patiently for her to answer.

“You’re honesty is refreshing, Constable.” she broke the silence with an unexpected answer. “To express oneself freely is a form of art—even if it is just police work.”

Padder nodded at the compliment.

She took in a deep breath. “If I am being completely forthright with both of you, Javen could overstep his bounds on occasion.”

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“Well, he is a very friendly person and is always willing to help people he thought needed it. Sometimes…” She paused. “This wasn’t the case and he could rub certain folks the wrong way. Some would deem it intrusive. Like I said, this happened on occasion and most thought he was a pleasant person.”

“That’s how I know him!” Gaffer burst out, both shot a confused look his way. “A little while back when the floods hit Hobbiton, he came over to help. Didn’t he?”

A sliver of a smile crept onto her lips. “Yes. Yes he did.”

Gaffer tapped a fist against the arm of the coach, “I knew it!” he chuckled. “Let me say this, there was no one who would have deemed him, ‘intrusive,’ or ‘overstepping bounds’ that day. We were grateful for his help.”

Vem’s smile brightened. “That was Javen. Always willing to help.”

“Is there anything else you can tell us about him or that night?” Padder asked, trying not to lose the momentum.

Her smile dissipated to a look of nothing. “Nobody saw him that afternoon and nobody’s seen him since. They tracked him on the road heading East, but the wind and the moisture took care of any trail beyond that.”

Padder shook his head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“There is something else though.” she sparked up slightly. “The other night, I stayed out late looking for any signs of Javen. Dusk came fast and I had forgotten a lantern. I started to head home in the moonlight when I heard a strange noise.”

“What sort of noise?”

“It was a yip or a shriek, a little ways off. The wind howled that night, so it was difficult to say where it came from…” She bit down on her lip and her eyes looked frightened. “I continued walking, but the sound grew louder. I sped up and the sound accompanied by footsteps grew. I took off in a dead sprint and didn’t look back. I made it to town and stumbled into a group of friends. They asked what was the matter, but I looked back…”

Padder leaned in, “What did you see?”

“A dark figure, nearly Man-sized, peaked over a patch of rocks. Out of fear I turned away for half a second and when I turned back—it was gone.”

A litany of thoughts and possible scenarios played with Padder’s mind. Too many to sort out in a minute. He needed the road or a night to give him clarity.

                “Do you think that could have been something?” She broke the silence.

                “I don’t know, but we will follow up on every lead—including this one.”

                A sad smile graced her face. “I’m not naïve. I know I could have imagined it. Let fear get the best of me. I know my Javen might be gone for good…” Her eyes returned to glass. “I just want to know what happened.” She broke down as she spoke.

Padder moved in and cupped her hands. Her pain stung him. He thought about if he lost his wife how he would feel. Lost in all these murders and disappearances were Hobbits—good Hobbits—who would never get to see their loved ones again. I must find out what’s happening. For her, for the Bracegirdles, for the Bolgers, for my wife—for everyone in the Shire

“I swear to you I will find out what has happened to your husband.”

Her tear riddled face raised and looked him in the eyes. “Bless you, Constable. Bless you…”

 

A faint crescent moon greeted them in the twilight as they exited Mrs. Dopple’s home. The night surprised both of them—it seemed they hadn’t been in there long. They opened the gate and it squeaked as it slowly shut.

                “Did that clear anything up for you, Padder?”

                He grimaced. “It’s clear to me that Javen was the first victim.”

                “Uh huh.” Gaffer agreed.

                “I still don’t have a good idea who is behind this though.” Padder let out a sigh as they entered the road back to Hobbiton.

                “What about the encounter she had a few nights ago? Seemed awfully strange.”

                “It did. She said, ‘nearly man-sized.’ That could mean Man, Elve, or Dwarf really. It seems so absurd though. That something would enter the Shire just to start killing Hobbits one by one. What sense does it make? We have nothing that they would want.”

                The last light of the setting sun dispelled within minutes of hopping on the road. Padder removed his lantern and lit it with a flint.

                “You know, I have a theory. Probably a long shot, but like you said, we must consider all options.” Gaffer started.

                “I’m all ears.”

                “Mr. Bilbo described a manner of creature that he and the Dwarves ran into on their adventure with the dragon as nearly man-sized. Sharp teeth and talons made for nasty weapons if a sword wasn’t available. They yipped, hissed and shrieked like Mrs. Dopple described in her account.”

                Padder pointed the lantern at Gaffer. The lines of his face magnified in the light as he squinted—looking like he had eaten something rotten. “What was it, Gaffer?”

                Gaffer looked him in the eyes, “Goblins.”

                A monstrous howl burst out behind them. Both of them jumped and turned toward the scream. Padder held out the lantern in a tentative arm. “What the bloody hell was that?”

                “I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything like that before.”

                Padder scanned from side to side in the dark. The lantern’s light only cast so far. The wind whistled through the black trees on the sides of the road. A whiff of clouds covered the moon and dimmed the night further. The buttons on Gaffer’s coat tapped against each other as nerves set in. Padder removed his knife and held it in an attack stance.

                “Take the lantern, Gaffer.” he said quietly.

                Gaffer made no movement as his body shook.

                “Gaffer!” he ordered in a whispered yell.

                He took the lantern and held it out in front of them. The howl erupted to their left. They turned quickly. The darkness of the trees greeted them.

                “Where is it? Do you see anything?” Gaffer asked in a trembling voice.

                “No. Not a damn thing.”

                The crunch of leaves echoed. Again. Again… and again. Slow, heaving breaths drew closer. The darkness hid all. Th backed up as the steps sounded too close. Their feet grated against dirt road. Gaffer panned the lantern from side to side. Nothing but the trees and brush. Gaffer panted and Padder forced his body to breath normal. A louder howl—a closer one—jolted them back to the edge of the road. It came from the right now. Padder’s skin pulled tight. It felt as if a brood of icy-foot insects crawled up his neck.

                “What are we going to do, Padder? I can’t move.”

                “Just stay calm. If we run, we could be taken down from behind with no chance to defend ourselves.”

The wind rushed by their ears and then dropped off like an anvil down a cliff. The crunch of the leaves increased in front of them. Heaving breaths grew to pants. Padder fought against his muscles trembling. No use. Gaffer shifted the lantern back and forth, trying to spot whatever hunted them. Nothing. The whiff of clouds passed and the moon shone bright. The crunch of leaves burst from behind them now. Padder turned. A silhouette of a massive creature took shape; sharp face, four legs, a ridge of hair on its back erected. The beast let out an ear piercing howl. Padder covered his left ear, but held out his knife. The silhouette grew. It barred down on them.

“Padder! Padder! What do we do?”

“Run now!” Padder screamed and threw his knife at the beast.

He turned before he could see if it landed. The wind rushed by his ears as they sprinted. A muffled sound came from behind.

                “Did you hit it?” Gaffer yelled.

                “No clue. Keep running!” Padder barked back.

                The light from the lantern jumped on the path ahead. They made sharp turns with the road as it revealed a step before they arrived. The crunch of leaves and heaving breath returned on the left side of the road. The noise grew closer. Closer. Padder pushed on hard, but the beast gained on them. He turned left and the silhouette had disappeared—he could only rely on his ears. It sounded a few paces behind, hidden in the trees just off the road.

                “Give me the lantern!” he yelled to Gaffer.

                It slipped out of Gaffer’s hand as he went to hand it over. Padder almost stumbled as he caught it inches from shattering on the ground. A pair of yellow eyes darted out of the trees toward the road. Padder heaved the lantern at them. The glass and flame burst as it connected. The beast yelped. Padder pushed Gaffer into a faster sprint as they meandered the road ahead by dim moonlight. The crunch and heaving diminished, but they pressed harder. They ran without looking back… they ran until they reached Hobbiton.

 

Crunch… the sound came from the kitchen where Annavelle prepared something for Bilbo’s party. It woke Padder in a panic. After a heart-stopping moment, he remembered he was back home. His ears attuned to the sound instinctively after last night. He dragged a hand down his face, exhausted from an off and on sleep.

                “Padder!” his wife called back to him. “I see Gaffer down on the road a ways… looks to be ten minutes away or so.”

                The Constable sighed. Not because Gaffer came, because he knew he would bring bad news. Something told him in his bones that someone else went missing yesterday. They arrived in town too late to ask and honestly all they wanted to do was get back home. After being pursued by some manner of creature, neither of them felt up to staying outside another minute. His mind raced as he tried to imagine who fell victim, which poor soul no longer graced this earth.

He grabbed a hunk of hair in each hand and pulled down. Anger and frustration seared through him. Several stands broke off as wrenched down. Every citizen of Hobbiton’s face pictured in his mind. One after another they slid ahead of the other—as if looking through a deck of cards. His chest burned and his scalp flinched in pain. He wanted to rip out his hair.

                “Sweetheart, did you hear me?” Annavelle popped her head into the room, breaking his agony. Her eyebrows lowered and mouth opened at his appearance. “Are you alright, Padder?”

                He looked up and realized that he still had his hair in a vice grip. Releasing, he dropped his hands to his cheeks and rubbed them. “Sorry about that, darling… yes I heard you.”

                She entered the room fully and leaned against the door molding. “Another rough night?” her apron crinkled as she folded her arms. She had pulled her hair back in a kerchief.

                “I suppose I could describe it, but I wouldn’t want you to worry.”

                “I appreciate that. Whatever it was still happened though.”

                “Yes it did… I’m afraid something else happened too.”

                “What’s that?”

                He turned his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. “I just know someone else went missing or didn’t come home yesterday.”

                “How can you be sure?”

                He folded his hands into a steeple and put them to his lips. “Just a feeling… a haunting… sickening feeling.” He let out a long sigh. “Whoever this demented bastard is—whether it an animal, goblin or a Hobbit—he’s remains a step ahead.”

                She shook her head and pursed her lips. “I’m so sorry, Padder…”

                “Don’t feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for the ones losing their lives.” It came out in a harsher tone than he intended.

“I didn’t meant it like that.”

                “I know that, sweetheart. I don’t mean to take my anger out on you. It’s best I get out of the house today and stay busy.”

                “You’ll feel better I suppose.” She smiled.

                He pulled on his pants and buttoned his shirt. “I have everything in front of me, I just need to go somewhere and think.”

                A knock came at the door a few minutes too early. Padder kissed his wife’s cheek and went to answer it. He pulled it open and beat Gaffer to the punch, “I know, Gaffer, someone didn’t come home last night.”

                “How’d you know?”

                “Seems to be a pattern lately.”

                “Purdo Tighollow… I overheard his wife telling mine this morning.”

                “Is she worried?”

                “Heaven’s no! She’s glad to have the drunken dolt out of the house for a day or so. He does disappear from time to time.”

                Padder shook his head. “Poor gal…”

                “I’m afraid the beast from last night got him.”

                Padder turned up sharply. “You think that creature is our killer.”

                “You don’t?”

                Annavelle brought Padder a muffin and placed it in his hand, interrupting his response. She ran her fingers across his and made eye contact. “Be safe out there… I know you two will figure this out.” Before he could respond, she retreated back to the kitchen.

                “How’s she holding up?”

                “Better than me.” Padder continued staring back at the kitchen door as if he could see her.

                They hit the road for the day. A litany of thoughts kept Padder’s mind occupied. Gaffer led and did all the talking. Padder didn’t realize where they headed until they went down the path to Drager’s house. In their haste to flee danger last night, both of them forgot to return to question the man.

When they arrived, two middle-aged Hobbits dressed in fine silken suits, each holding a stack of legal papers greeted them. Both were Dragger’s barristers and preceded to tell them that their client reserved the right to say nothing more until formal charges were drawn. Padder, tired and angered further, pushed the papers back in their face and walked back toward the main road without a fight.

                It was just after mid-morning and Padder needed somewhere to collect his thoughts. Gaffer suggested the Green Dragon. They headed there and coerced the owner to open up a few hours early. Apparently other Hobbits got the note as well because mere minutes after they got their first ale several other groups filled the place to the brink. It made it difficult for Padder to think, but he relented and decided to give his mind a break for a little while. Gaffer ordered round after round with snippets of food in between. Ale, bread—ale, cheese—ale, pork—and so on and so forth…

                “You think you can beat Mr. Constable Brownfoot in arm wrestling?” Tincy Chubb spurted out at another Hobbit, whose name escaped Padder.

                The stumpy Hobbit’s eyes formed slits and shoulders swayed from side to side as he tried to keep his balance. “Think?” he hiccupped. “I know me can.” The last word inaudible, but sounded like, “fool.”

                “Then go ahead and try. He’s right there.” Tincy pointed to Padder who sat in his usual seat on the bench nearest the door.

                The stumpy Hobbit stumbled forward and the table stopped him from collapsing. He pushed back to a standing position. A pair of hiccups exited his mouth. He went to sit and missed the seat entirely and crashed to the floor. Tincy and the others burst out into laughter as the stumpy Hobbit closed his eyes and curled into the fetal position, taking an afternoon nap. Padder just smiled and threw back the bottom half of his ale.

                “I thunk you could’ve taken him, Padder.” Gaffer said in a worn out voice.

                “Here, here!” Tincy, a few Brandybucks, Jappin Took and a few of his relatives at the table agreed.

                All them took a swig and finished at the time with a collective, “aaaaaaaahhhh.”

                “Any new interesting stories to tell us?” Japin asked Padder.

                “Afraid not, gents.” He didn’t miss a beat out loud. Although his insides stung as the thought of the four victims prodded his conscience.

                “I guess no news is good news when it comes to your line of work.” Farin Brandybuck jested, getting a few hearty laughs from the group.

                “Always grateful when there’s nothing to report.” Padder came back, exchanging a glance with Gaffer.

                “I know no one wants to talk about it, but I can’t wait for Bilbo’s birthday party tomorrow!” Japin burst out with a massive grin covering his thin shaved face.

                The group let out a collective moan and pelted him with a few leftover bread crusts.

                “Come off it now!” Japin brushed the crumbs off his shirt. “It’s going to be magnificent. They’ll have more food than you can eat, more ale than you can drink. Just picture the stacks of pies and cakes that will be there.” The entire group looked up in unison, envisioning the bountiful feast. “Not to mention all the lasses from here to Brandywine.” He finished with a wink. The rest of the group let out another collective, “Ooooooooooooohhhh,” while picturing them of course.

                “Just have to make sure and grab your gal before the fireworks start.” Farin chimed in.

                “Blimey! Fireworks, really?” Tincy almost dropped his mug.

                “Word is Gandalf himself will be doing the honors. The wandering wizard who saved Bilbo’s you know what is going to have a trick or two up his sleeve!”

                “Why didn’t we start talking about this earlier?” Tincy quipped and sent all but Padder and Gaffer into a tizzy.

                Padder wanted to share in their laughter, their excitement. The long awaited party promised to be one for the decade, but nothing could shake his malaise. Until he stopped the murders, nothing mattered. He felt decent, the weight on his chest lessened at moments during the past few hours in the Dragon. That’s all it was though; less pressure, less worry, less guilt. They fleeted like trying to hold water in a closed fist—it always seems to seep out. The last ale tipped him over from comfortable ignorance to deep introspection. Drinking always was a science, a balancing act with one’s awareness or lack of awareness of his own circumstances—especially this time.

                He took a slow drink from the recently filled up mug. Setting it down, he panned the room and caught eyes with Welton Bracegirdle. The old man’s face held its unfriendly look it usually had; brow furrowed, eyes wincing and face scrunched. Padder nodded and gave a polite smile.

                “Constable, do you like fireworks?” Tincy asked, bringing him back to the conversation.

                “I’ve only seen them once and it was a long time ago… when I was just a young lad actually.”

                “Yes, well did you like them?”

                “They wer—.” “Did find my cow yet, Constable?” Welton Bracegirdle edged a few of the others out of the way and interrupted him.

                 Padder looked up at the old timer, irritated. Welton appeared just as irritated himself, nodding his head.

                “No… I have not.”

                “Blimey! I’m shocked.” The old man’s word drenched in sarcasm. “Seeing you here with your group of degenerates, I figured you had found the poor beast… at the very least caught the thief! Have you done that?”

                Padder gripped the chalice hard enough it caused his forearm to shake. “He continues to evade me.”

                “Oh, I see!” Welton dropped both hands on the table leaned in, inches from Padder’s face. The old man’s breath smelled of day old fish and punished the Constable’s nose. “You probably spent the past few days searching endlessly for them both and figured you deserved a midday top off—a belly fattener before noon!” Welton snorted sending a fresh whiff at the same time Padder inhaled.

He felt his entire body grow hot and his teeth clenched. The others had gone quiet, watching in uncomfortable silence.

“Let me tell you something, the biggest fool in the world could have caught them by now. Just set a trap and wait for someone to spring it!” The old man pounded on the table with his knuckles. “I guess you didn’t think of that did ya? That’s because you’re a poor excuse for a Constable and shoulda been fired years ago—.” Quicker than the eye could blink, Padder grabbed Welton by the shirt and slammed him against the wall.

                The old Hobbit let out a gasp as his back collided with the wood. His feet dangled, unable to touch the floor.  

                “Don’t go runnin your mouth, you old fool!” Padder’s voice raised several octaves higher than he had raised it in a decade. All the frustration, the anger, the guilt exploded inside him. “Sooner or later someone’s gonna shut it for good.” He held Welton up with one hand as he cocked back the other.

                Fear plastered the old man’s face as it braced for punch. His eyes shied away from the Constable.

                “Padder…” Gaffer’s calm, yet strong tone, broke his concentration. “Let em down… now.”

                All the steam within Padder dissipated. He turned back to Gaffer. His friend, confidant, looked concerned, as did the others. He looked at his fist. Rage had ensnared him when he was to be the calm one—the restrained one.

                He dropped Welton. The floor planks shifted as the old man’s feet hit. He wasted no time and hobbled out the door, saying something inaudible in the process.

                “Give us a minute, lads.” Gaffer said to the group.

                They walked away murmuring to each other. Gaffer slid next to Padder as he slowly returned to his seat. The old man’s a fool, sure of that I am. I shouldn’t have lost my temper though—especially not in front of a full bar. He shook his head, disgusted with himself.

                “Don’t worry about it, Padder. Everyone could see that the codger antagonized you. We all have our moments of weakness—in one form or another.”

                “He’s right though… I am a poor Constable.”

                Gaffer let out a dismissive yawp. “That old man has no idea what he’s talking about. Nobody does—save but you and me. He’s wrong.”

                Something jolted Padder stiff. Something Welton had said. In all the emotion and outburst, the old man made one point.

                “He’s right!” Padder said excitedly.

                “You are an excellent Constable. He’s wrong.”

                “No not about me… about how we’re going to catch the killer!”

                Gaffer held out his hands and shook his head. “I’m not following.”

                “We need to set a trap. The whole time they have been a step ahead of us… This is the way to get ahead of them.”

                Gaffer nodded, starting to understand. “How are we going to do that?”

                “What do we know about this case?” Padder held up his hand and counted off his fingers. “We know that all the victims were alone, most in the forest. We know that they’re all young male Hobbits. We know that either they hear about them leaving town or if it is a beast, it is roaming around the countryside.”

                “We don’t know who’s doing it though.”

                “If we set the trap and are prepared—it won’t matter.”

                Gaffer smiled. “What do we need now?”

                Padder turned toward their former group, standing a stone’s throw away looking back at them. “Bait.”

                The group looked excited and started to make their way back to the table, believing it was time to return. “No. Just Tincy.”

                All of them but Tincy threw up their hands and moaned. “Geez, these guys and their alone time.” “What’s so bloody important?” “Maybe they’re in a secret club or something?” A couple of them remarked.

                The young Mr. Tincy walked cautiously while his eyes shifted from side to side and concerned look. He sat down with perfect posture and looked back and forth from Gaffer to Padder.

                The both of them told Tincy the entire story; about the murders, about the thing that scared Mrs. Dopple and the beast that chased them last night. They had to occasionally stop and ask if the young man was alright. Each time he reassured them with a not so reassuring vacant eyed head nod. After that, Padder detailed his plan to trap the killer and how they would need him. 

                “You understand what we’re asking, lad?” Padder said, trying to confirm whether they lost him or not.

                Tincy took in a deep breath and let out a longer sigh. “I can’t believe this has happened in the Shire.”

                “We know… it took us a while to accept as well.” Gaffer replied, patting him on the back.

                “It’s a lot to take on, son. Nothing’s happened like this in the Shire since, well… ever. Yet it’s on us now. This is our reality and it’s an ugly one. This remains our best shot to catch this bastard and end it once and for all. So… I need to know if you’re in?”

                Tincy looked up and met their gaze for the first time since sitting. It seemed like an hour passed as they waited for his response. His face turned to a scowl as he looked both of them over. “For the Shire.” He raised his pint. “I’m in.”

 

Padder turned over for the twentieth time in bed and accidently bumped his wife’s hip, which shifted her entire body. You clumsy dolt. Her breathing and the rhythm of body movements changed subtly. After thirty years of marriage, he could tell by these that she awoke. He went stiff as a board and closed his eyes, hoping she’d go back to sleep in half a minute. The twitches from her body sent tiny vibrations through the bed. He smiled as these always proceeded her falling asleep.

                “I know you’re awake, sir.” Annavelle said in half joking, half irritated manner. “I’m aware of your signs as well.”

                “Nothing gets by you, Ms. Annavelle Darben.” he called her by her maiden name.

                She rolled over and started carressing his face, starting at his temple down to his cheek. Even at night, after a few hours of sleep, she still looked as beautiful as ever. Hair, face—all of it remained like during the day. He turned so they faced each other.

                “What has you tossing and turning?” she asked, still rubbing his face.

                He let out a sigh as he hated to burden her with these issues. “We’re setting up a trap for this killer tomorrow.”

                Her hand paused between the cheek and temple. “A trap? What sort of trap?”

                “It’s a dangerous one.” He paused. “I think its best that you don’t know. You might object.”

                Drawing her hand back to her side, she nodded, accepting it instantly.

                “I’ll tell you if all goes well… if it doesn’t—I won’t be Constable anymore.”

                She looked down and seemed to be mulling over a myriad of questions. “Are you scared?” she asked.

                Padder shook his head. “Not for me, no. I’m scared for the others involved though… terrified really,” He laid out his true feelings in as plain of speech as he could.

Rarely over the years did he do this. Since childhood, he had always been the strong silent type. His mother used to confide secrets with him because she knew he would never tell. When his parents would host dinner parties all the kids were sent to bed early. All six of his brothers and sisters would escape their rooms and sneak into the party—only to be sent back a minute later. Padder, however, was always allowed to stay out even though he was the middle child. He knew the only way to remain up past bedtime and listening to adults’ talk their adult talk was to remain seen, not heard and take in everything in confidence. Even when his brothers and sisters badgered him later that night for information, he would only give them interesting musings such as: what guest showed up, what they wore, who ate the most and if they used any curse words—he never gave them any incriminating stories or gossip, which there was an abundant amount.

“What about Bilbo’s party? Could that intrude on your trap?”

The group talked about the party, yet it never entered his mind when talking to Tincy and Gaffer. “I don’t know.” He shook his head. “It could, I suppose.”

“Best not to worry about it then. You have no barring over it. Best focus on what you can control… and that’s your plan.”

He smiled and planted a kiss on her forehead. “You’re right. Worrying is pointless. All of us are as ready as can be. I have to trust us and the plan.”

“There’s the Constable I know.” She replaced her hand on the side of his face. “Now get some sleep. I expect you to have enough energy to dance with me tomorrow night after you’ve caught the criminal.”

He nodded as she rolled over back to her original sleeping position. “As you wish.” he replied and rolled over on his left side. With his mind clear it took only minutes for him to fall asleep.

 

 

“Are you kidding? That went as well as can be expected. Well done, Tincy!” Padder congratulated him as they passed over the river and on their way to Bridgefield.

                The young Hobbit chucked and slapped Gaffer on the back, causing him to stumble a bit. “I supposed it did go well.”

                Excitement grew in Padder as he recounted what took place just an hour prior. As planned, Tincy volunteered to help with the setting up of Mr. Bilbo’s party. He worked vigorously for three hours as did the others. All of the helpers, which was most of Hobbiton, moved like they just been hit by a bolt of lightning. The angst, the excitement, the anticipation of the party moved through everything they did. Padder and Gaffer counted on this and used it to their advantage. In the others haste, the Constable encouraged them to take supplies from Tincy’s pile. Again and again, Padder encouraged the anxious ones to take whatever they needed. After nine or ten pilfers, Tincy went to sit on the chairs and use the table he had to put together, but they all collapsed in front of everyone because of the missing parts. To add injury to insult it was the head table where Bilbo himself would be seated. The young Hobbit burst into anger over people stealing his supplies and that the town was full of snakes.  A convincing vein bulged from his forehead and a cup full of slaver expelled from his mouth as he berated everyone. Padder gave the signal when he had said enough and Tincy cursed them while vowing to live the rest of his days in Bridgefield’s wood.

                “I dare say that if our culprit is a Hobbit, he’ll already know that another potential victim is waiting for him.” said Padder.

                The smile dropped from Tincy’s face and his eyes scanned the woods around them.

                “Don’t worry, lad.” Gaffer reassured him. “The beast likes to hunt at night.”

                Tincy shook his head. “Wait—beast? I thought we were waiting for a Hobbit?”

                “Honestly, we’re not sure what has been killing folk. Signs point to a number of things… we’ve prepared for everything.”

                The young Hobbit cast an uneasy smile. “I sure hope so.”

                They made quick work of the trails out to Bridgefield. Padder took precautions and eliminated his and Gaffer’s tracks. Tincy’s were all that remained. He didn’t want to leave anything to chance. It took a good league before the sound of the party preparations went mute and another mile to their spot. This meant the killer would be at ease while they were close enough to town if anything went wrong.

                “Alright, lads, this is the spot.” Padder halted them on a rock and dirt covered berm.

 It overlooked a patch of forest and large meadow bookended by more trees. They could see for several leagues. On a clear day, like this one, they could see back to Hobbiton and the little dots scurrying about to prepare for the party. 

“Tincy, do you see down and to the left about eighty meters?”

                “Into the wooded area there?”

                “Yes… down there you will find a little clearing. It’s an old campsite. That is your spot.”

Tincy searched for the clearing and marked it. He took in a deep breath and clenched both fists. “Well… I guess there’s no use drawing this out.” his voice waivered, clearly the nerves set in.

                “Don’t worry, lad, we’ll be watching everything from there.” Padder pointed to their right another fifty feet where the tree belt started again. “Behind that first pine is an old oak with a blind on it. My very first hunting spot. It has a direct line to your site. My father and I used to set traps for squirrels, rabbits and even a few deer down there.” He looked Tincy dead in the eyes. “There’s no other shot that I’m more confident in.” he said, holding up his bow.

                The young Hobbits eyes squinted and his lip quivered a hair. “I trust you, Constable.” His voice trembled.

                “We’ll see you tonight and tell everyone in town that you’re a hero.” Gaffer padded his shoulder.

                Tincy smiled, secured his pack and headed down the trail to his site. Padder and Gaffer made their way to the blind. The wooden ladder steps, which the Constable’s father nailed over forty years ago, remained in good condition on the old oak tree. They held the weight of both Hobbits as they ascended to their perch. Not one step or the blind itself made a sound as they settled in. To their back—a collection of trees that hid their position from anyone who came on the same trail they did. To their front—just as Padder said—a clear window through the trees down to the campsite. Not one leaf or branch obstructed their aim even though a few hundred trees lay between them. Perfect for a hunt. 

                Gaffer watched Tincy like a hawk as the young Hobbit set up his camp. The old man’s jaw shifted from side to side. Padder felt his nerves, but remained unaffected. Seated on the right side of the two man blind, he jammed his right foot into the back corner, providing a solid base. Sliding his left foot and knee against the front plank of wood, this completed his stance. Something poked his posterior. He reached back and felt a knife. He had forgotten that his wife gave him her sharpest kitchen blade since his was lost the other night. Adjusting it in his belt, he made sure it wouldn’t poke him again. 

He pulled out an arrow from its quiver. Running his hands along the feather fletching, he locked the nock into the string. A tiny metal ring fastened to the outside of the blind gleamed in the sunlight. He secured the bow in it and stared down into the opening. A rush of childhood memories flooded his vision. So many days and nights, he spent here with his father—all for food—to provide a tasty meal for their family or one in need. Never did he ever think it would be used for this.

 

 

The afternoon sun disappeared into the moon. It cast a bright white light on their surroundings. Tincy lit the four lanterns surrounding his camp right on schedule, just as the sun started to set. Padder shifted his weight to his right side and Gaffer shifted his to the left. His posterior had gone numb a few hours ago. He tried massaging it without Gaffer noticing, but it had no effect. In fact, he went through all the regiments he used to do as a boy: massaging, standing, stretching and shifting his sitting posture in thirty minute increments. Age made itself known with things like this.

                Padder felt the blind shudder and he turned to Gaffer. The older man’s body teetered to the left as his eyes drooped. Padder gently shook his shoulder, causing Gaffer to startle and sit straight with wide eyes. “Stay with me now, Gaffer.” He chuckled as he spoke.

                The older man nodded and looked around as if he was lost. “What time is?”

                “Late enough that they’re serving supper at the party.” Both turned back and could see as well as hear Bilbo’s celebration in full-swing. “Late enough that our honored guest could be making an appearance soon.” he finished, turning back to their bait.

                The light flickered on Tincy as a patch of moths drew to the lanterns. The young Hobbit took a bowl and served himself some manner of soup or stew from a kettle hanging over the fire. Padder thought to go diving into his bag and eating some bread and cheese. Hunger evaded him—replaced by focus.

                Gaffer pulled himself forward and took his bow out of the notch. “You sure he set up the alarm bells?”

                Padder nodded with his sight still locked on their bait. “Aye. He tied them in a circle around the camp. One tug on the foot from our culprit and it will give himself away before he can get within twenty feet of Tincy.”

                “Good lad he is.” Gaffer wrung the bow with both hands like trying to drain a washcloth.

                “Easy now…” Padder caught him in his peripheral. “Stay loose and relaxed. It’s just like shootin a conie. Except this time they truly deserve it.”

                “I don’t know how you stay so calm… I mean… what if we miss?”

                “We won’t miss.”

                Gaffer’s foot started tapping like a woodpecker. “What if we do though?”

                “Then Tincy will have to use his pocket knife while we reload.” Even Padder didn’t believe the two inch blade would do much damage, but at least it was a weapon.

                The tapping persisted. Padder ignored it and remained glaring down onto the campsite. Tincy sat in the middle of it. Twenty feet gaps spread to each side before the trees with the alarm bells tied to clear string placed low enough that it blended into the ground. He checked each of the four sides, looking for the slightest hint of movement, any sign of something afoot. The moonlight coupled with the lanterns and campfire provided plenty of light. Luck favored them with this. Nothing but a curious squirrel to Tincy’s back and a snapped branch that swung on its last bit of connection to its tree at his front.

                Heavy breaths heaved in and out of Gaffer while his foot continued to tap. Combined with the crickets and the occasional owl hooting it provided enough to distract Padder for a second.

                He grabbed Gaffer’s shoulder without taking his eyes off Tincy. “Gaffer, your foot and breathing need to settle.”

                The older man’s hands went back to wringing the bow. “Sorry about that.” It sounded like his teeth chattered once or twice in his response.

                “Keep your eyes fixed on Tincy and the site for a minute.”

                “Where are you going?” Gaffer turned quickly, looking like death swathed over him.

                “Nowhere… I just need to do something that requires me to be blind.”

                The older Hobbit looked at him cockeyed.

                “Trust me.”

                Gaffer brought his bow to a ready stance and eyes beamed down below. Padder closed his eyes. This accomplished two things: he could rely only on sound to hear anything around them and it forced Gaffer to focus. He could still see the faint outline of the fire through his eyelids. This was something his father taught him the first time they had ever hunted. Game often detected they were being hunted or at the very least had an internal instinct to be on guard at all moments. They had a sixth sense about danger. Somehow they knew to avoid certain pitfalls: tall grass, a large openings in the forest trails paved by the stomping of Hobbit’s or men’s footsteps. This being the case, his father taught him to listen with a hunter’s ear. Temper your breathing to an inaudible level, settle your body so nothing made noise, focus on your ears so you can feel them tingle and learn to determine which sounds were nothing and which sounds meant prey.

                He focused on his ears and the tingling started immediately as if it hadn’t been ten years since he last hunted. An intermittent rustling came from his right. It sounded like twigs brushing against more twigs—most likely a bird fortifying its nest.

He moved on. Subtle squeaks came from their left at about ten o’clock. Easy one to detect. Either squirrels or chipmunks fought over an acorn. The wind blew from the West carrying in savory smells form the party. Pork product of a multitude of types and fresh cakes.  

He pulled his focus off those and back to listening. His head turned as something prodded the ground. It could have been a footstep. Blocking everything else out, he waited for it to return. The gravel kicked up from two recessive steps. He guessed about twenty meters away on the path they took to get here. The trees blocked his shot until twenty feet away. He knew down to the inch when he had a clear sight.

The steps came again… and again. They were cautious ones coming down a slight decline. Two more came. Fifteen meters. Four more came quickly. Ten. Five more and then stop. . Come on just a few more. Two more steps then they stopped and slid back a half pace. Padder squeezed his bow until it hurt. His right hand secured the nock and drew the string back until it pulled taught. Four steps came in a hurry. Now!

In one motion he drew over Gaffer with the line pulled back as far as it could go and his arrowhead pointed at the chest of his target. The moonlight gleamed of the eyes of the culprit. The stag halted and its body trembled as it stared at him. His heartbeat thumped so hard it shook his entire torso. Adrenaline pulsed through his body. It was physically hard to lower his weapon, but he did. He exhaled and watched as young deer bounded away.

A sound like lightening erupted behind them. They turned and were nearly blinded by a chorus of red, green, yellow and orange sizzling lights. Gandalf’s fireworks exploded one after another. They filled the sky and rattled the eardrums. It seemed that the winds picked up as well with the bursts. The last one blew and dropped out of the sky, leaving nothing but the dark wallpaper of the night behind.

                Tincy! Padder turned around and searched the campsite. The fire, the lanterns all remained. No Tincy. The rush of panic and rose up to his throat. He crammed it back down for it would only hinder him.

                “Where’s Tincy? Where’s Tincy?” Gaffer panicked.

                “Settle down and search for him!” Padder tried to calm him.

                “Hold on, boy! We’re coming for ya!” Gaffer yelled down below and turned on his heels.

                He tried to move too fast and stumbled forward. His shoulder rammed into Padder, who was halfway out of the blind. He felt himself slip over the top and saw Gaffer follow. Both of them free fell and crashed to the ground some twenty feet below. A dagger of pain slashed in the middle of Padder’s calf. Reaching down, he felt a two-inch thick piece of branch sticking out of it. He took a deep breath and yanked it out. Blood and a yelp spewed out from him. He clamored to his feet and hobbled to Gaffer. The elder Gamgee lay with his back turned to him. Padder turned him over. A blood stain and welt smeared across his forehead. Unconscious? He put his hand to Gaffer’s chest. He sighed as he felt a subtle heartbeat. Tincy!

                 He picked up his bow and limped as fast as he could down to the campsite. The sharp pain jolted up his leg with every step. He ignored it and tore through the trees and brush. Branches whipped his face and stomach. His ankle twisted on something and he flung forward. The alarm bells rung as he stumbled into the campsite, heightening his anxiety. He searched wildly for anything. Everything remained intact. Where did he go? What happened?

                “Tincy! No games, lad! Come out now if you’re close by!” he yelled in all directions.

                Nothing but murmurs of the forest critters replied.

                Curse this killer! Not again! Not again! His right eye caught something. He couldn’t be sure. He pushed off with his left leg, the good one, and limped over to it. Picking off one of the lanterns, he drew it down. The light illuminated the back half of a footprint. He looked up and it pointed to the meadow on the edge of the trees. He took off and found the steps again. The entire right side of his body shuddered as a bolt of pain emanated from the hole in his calf. He cleared the last bit of long grass and the steps disappeared.

No! Where’d you go! The dirt and gravel on the side of the hill had hardened in the warm summer. They hid any footsteps that had just crossed them.

“Tincy! Tincy! Where are you?” he yelled out.

No response came—not even a faint cry or scream.

Above the hill laid a cropping of rocks. It blocked any view he had beyond it. Nothing but short grass laid to his left for a quarter mile before the trees started again. His gut tensed when he looked at the rocky hill. If I’m wrong, he’s dead…

He started up the hill, having to use his hands to pull himself up as well. His right foot slipped and his bodyweight shifted back. He latched onto a leafless tree branch, the bark grated his hand. He stopped his momentum from bringing him down the hill.

Pulling himself up to the tree stalk, he ascended the last few feet of the hill and reached the rock cropping. It started wide at the base and grew skinnier as it got to the top about fifty feet high. It looked like a crude triangle in the middle of a forest.

Padder pulled out his bow and notched an arrow. He took a deep breath that filled his lungs down to his stomach. He crept around the base of the rock formation. Choosing his steps carefully, he tried to minimize the gravel sound underfoot. The path narrowed as he rounded and the drop off to the hillside steepened. The other side came more into view with each step. His heart beat rapidly, while his breathing held calm. He halted as one more step would put the other side into complete view and if anything or anyone stood there—he would be vulnerable. He raised his bow and pulled the string back to full taut. For the Shire

He whipped around the corner.

“Welton!” His mind didn’t believe his eyes.  

Mr. Bracegirdle stood close to the edge of the drop off with one arm around Tincy’s throat and the other holding a knife to his scalp. The old Hobbit’s eyes glared at Padder, his deranged look made Padder’s stomach jut into itself. Tincy trembled as tears driveled onto his shirt. The moon hung behind them, casting its bright white light.

“Best drop your weapon… Constable.” Welton’s said in flat tone. His voice sounded different—deeper—like it had climbed out of filth to make its way into the world.

Padder remained frozen with the bow and arrow at the ready. The shock of a Hobbit, let alone an old man like Welton Bracegirlde, being responsible for the ghastly murders made his mind stall.

“Afraid… I can’t do that.” he replied finally, realizing the situation was indeed real.

The old man’s nostrils flared up and his cocked to the right. “You’re afraid… that much I can tell. Drop the weapon or the lad dies right now.”

He felt the weight of Tincy’s life anchor to his heart in that moment. One false move or word and the blood would be on his hands. “What possessed you to do this, Welton? What happened to the Hobbit we all knew?” he said, trying to distract him.

A deep, insulting laugh rolled through the old man. “Put down the weapon and I will ease your curious mind.”

Padder held. Put it down too fast and Welton would figure he had another armament. Put it down too slow or put it down at all and he might kill Tincy. Perhaps, if he relinquished his bow, then Welton might relax a bit and it could give him time, possibly an opening to use the knife.

“Alright…” He released his right hand from the string and set down both bow and arrow.

Tincy’s eyes widened and moved like he was going to say something, but stopped and it came out like a moan.

“Easy now, lad. The Constable and I are just going to talk for a bit.” Welton grinned at Padder and his eyebrows lowered, covering up half his eyes.

“I did what you asked… please tell me.” he pleaded, needing time to figure out a plan or at the very least get his knife without Welton noticing.

“I warn you, Constable… you may change your mind about my activities after you hear why. You may let me kill master Tincy here. You may even take up with me and help kill more.”

He went to curse the old man, but wisely restrained himself. “We shall see.” he gave the only neutral response he could think of to remain on Welton’s good side.

“Fifteen days ago one of my bovine had escaped her pen. I tracked her for miles, all the way to the border of the Shire.” He waived his knife wielding hand twice and quickly returned it to Tincy’s forehead.

“Only reason I found her was she had gotten stuck in some mush. I tried for hours to get her out—every which way I know how.” He shook his head. “I was about to give up when some old man, clad in all white, come upon us and offered assistance. Something was different about this man. He had a sense of power, wisdom about him. He had a way with the bovine too. She responded to him in a calm fashion and he was able to ease her out of the mess…”

Padder slipped his hand to his hip, a few inches from the knife tucked in the back of his belt.

“I asked him how he was able to do that. He said an old mage had taught a calming trick with animals. I think he lied… I think he was that old mage.” Welton chuckled to himself. “We sat and talked awhile about numerous things from livestock to farming to songs and riddles. I was about to bid farewell when I caught a glimpse of something in his satchel.”

Padder moved his hand centimeters closer as Welton looked up for a split second.

“It held a dark, perfectly smooth sphere, with no marks or abrasions to dull its brilliance. My eyes salivated over this flawless object.” Welton’s eyes widened and looked off into nowhere as fantasy took over his mind.

He returned too soon for Padder to get closer to his dagger.

“I asked him about it and the mage only gave vague answers. I prodded further and he told me that it was a, ‘seeing stone…’ That one could see great distances away, could see the past and possibly things that have yet to come to pass.” the wild look returned. “I didn’t need to hear anymore. After goading him for at least an hour, he relented.”

“Then what happened?” Padder asked, using this to move his hand closer. All he needed was for Tincy or Welton to separate themselves a hair from the other.

“Then I looked…” the old Hobbit’s breathing heaved in and out. His face twisted and snarled into a malice drenched stare. “I saw a young Hobbit. A bold lad… who would leave the Shire for some great quest. To destroy something dear and… precious to others.” Spit spewed from his mouth. “This selfish, self-righteous act would lead to devastation.” The twisted face turned into a boy’s who had lost his mother.

“The scouring of the Shire would ensue because of this young Hobbit’s actions. Our green fields turned to waste, black smoke would fill the sky and all us decent folk would be imprisoned or killed.” Tears welled in his eyes as his mouth moved with no words. “Everything went dark in my mind after that. I woke at dusk and the mage had gone. I tried to think back who this young Hobbit was, but…” he cursed violently, startling Tincy and Padder. “I never saw his face clear enough.”

“You still haven’t told me why you are doing this.” Padder retorted. 

Welton paused. His face curled back to the dark façade of man capable of murder. The seams on it indented further, making his skin fold in an unnatural way. “Whoever this young Hobbit was, he had to be stopped… I knew my destiny now… to save the Shire and rid it of this transgressor—this betrayer.” Welton’s face quaked with fury, yet remained too close to Tincy’s.

Padder shook his head. “How would you ever know you had gotten the right person? How would you know that the future you saw would ever come true?”

“It matters not!” Welton yelled. “After I killed the first one, I knew that if he was the guilty one, the doom bringer—one would just take his place. After that it was clear… they had to be slaughtered!”

“Slaughtered? Why? Is taking a life not enough?”

The whites of his eyes flashed black. “No... It must be done my way. They must be killed in the worst way. Tincy will dies just as the others did. His scalp and his extremities removed and all evidence fed to the pigs.”

The accumulation of disgust and horror mounted at the back of Padder’s throat, daring him to curse the sick old fool. His tongue held it at bay and went to keep Welton talking. “Why did you invite me to your home? Why involve me at all?”

“My first kill was impulsive—sloppy. The lad had strolled by home when I was working in the garden. He practically begged me to let him assist. Nice lad… I killed him the instant it turned to nightfall.” He moved his mouth like someone would before eating a meal. “While taking him back to the pigs I heard several voices on the road and fled inside my home. I couldn’t have word getting round that I had no explanation for that much blood. People might have gotten suspicious.”

Padder sighed for he knew what came next.

“So I asked our honorable Constable to investigate, thus leaving me as your last possible suspect.”

“You certainly made quiet a scene at the Green Dragon for someone trying to remain anonymous.”

“I was still playing my role. To show how concerned I was about my lost cow. I wanted you to say you couldn’t find it and then think nothing of it. I never thought you would catch on, that Dowry Bolger’s mother would ask your wife who would then coerce you to look for him in Binobole… Yet so it went…” He made a sweeping motion with his free arm, which took his chest further away from behind Tincy—far enough. “And here we are.”

Padder’s arms and legs tingled. His stomach felt empty like he hadn’t eaten in a month. In his mind two opportunities existed for him to catch Welton before the killings and he missed them both. Everything made sense and figured in hindsight. Is this my fault? Am I the reason for Dowry, Samon, and Purdo no longer gracing this earth? Am I the reason their loved one’s open arms remain empty, their favorite chairs vacant? He felt his body slumping and straightened to look back into Welton’s empty eyes.

“I’ve told you the reason… I’ve answered your questions… now is the time to give us an answer—are you going to help save the Shire?”

                He inched his hand back and it grasped the knife handle. Gripping it, he gently slipped it out of his belt. Now or never, Padder! “Yes!” he removed the knife and reared back to throw it.

                “Steady now!” Welton yelled as he ducked behind a shivering Tincy.

Only one of his eyes was visible round the lad’s head. The old man’s blade drew blood. Padder fell forward from the momentum as he halted his throw. The window to fit a dagger was considerably bigger than an arrow. If his throw erred even by an inch it could mean death for Tincy.

                “Steady now, Constable…” Welton said in a calm tone while still hidden.

                Padder regained his footing with knife still in hand. Holding it by the blade it broke the skin. Welton’s eye fixed on the blood dripping down the weapon. He chuckled. “Looks like I know what side you’re on.” He pulled his left arm in and constricted Tincy’s neck. The young Hobbit let a muffled yelp. “Time for me to finish this… then I’m coming for y—.” An arrow broke the darkness and clipped the side of Welton’s head.

                Gaffer sprinted up on them. “Duck, Tincy!” he hollered, trying to load another arrow.

                Tincy’s body went limp and slipped out of the old man’s stranglehold. Padder wound and heaved the knife. Welton’s head turned from Gaffer to Padder at the last moment. It broke through bone and plunged into his heart. A fountain of blood spouted out of the wound and the old Hobbit’s mouth. His legs wobbled and meandered, trying to gain control. Tincy, still on the ground, pushed himself away. If a soul could be stolen by a glare, the one he focused on Padder would have done it. His legs secured themselves as his upper-body cowered over his belt.

A trembling, blood covered hand raised and pointed at the Constable. “Yoooooooouu.” The word came out rusty and gravel filled. “dooouuoommmed uuuusss.” He crashed onto his side.

His lungs gargled on their last breath. Face, eyes, muscles and skin turned to a look that only dead things took on.

The cord that held the weight, the anchor, to Padder’s heart severed and dropped into the abyss of his being. He almost collapsed as it did, but Gaffer caught him. Padder turned to him. The streaks of blood had dried on Gaffer’s head.

“I knew I chose the right Hobbit for my deputy.” Padder said as tears beckoned.

Gaffer smiled. “Not before we chose the right Constable.”

They pulled Tincy up and embraced without words. Too soon for laughter or joy. Time needed to pass before those luxuries could be enjoyed.

“Do you think the old Hobbit was right?” Gaffer asked, looking serious.

“I don’t… but if he was he would have never stopped killing until everyone in Hobbiton was gone.”

Gaffer and a fragile Tincy nodded and looked down at his body.

All of them hurt in some way and were unable to carry Welton’s body, they left it for the buzzards. Although his crimes warranted this sort of callousness, Padder felt sorry for the old fool. His mind had been twisted by something beyond reason. He should have resisted and erred on the side of love and sunnier thoughts. Padder would never boast about this kill—for grief always harbored it.

A tempered levity carried them back to Hobbiton. The buzz of the party they’d forgotten still went strong. They hid behind a pine and fixed each other’s clothes, cleaned off the blood as much as they could.

                Padder finished brushing off the last of the dirt from his pants. He looked at both of them and put his arms around them. “Thank you. You are the finest of Hobbits… enjoy yourselves this evening… let’s raise a glass tomorrow night when the grief is not so close.”Both Tincy and Gaffer nodded silently.

They parted and went to join their loved ones. Padder saw his wife near the frontline of tables next to the stage. Her shoulders gently swayed to the music while she clapped on the young Tooks and Brandybucks dancing. Pure unaltered love, the kind born out of the goodness of this world, moved through him as his eyes fixed on her. Her perfume, only hers, caught his nose as he got closer. He hoped to surprise her, yet she turned a few feet before he could. That smile, the smile of a lifetime pledge to him, mended his damaged heart.

Her eyes surveyed him up and down. “You look as good as the day I married you, Constable.”

Padder snorted as they came into each other’s arms. Her touch was the first pleasant thing all day. “I must have looked horrible then… not sure why you married a shabby looking character like me.”

Her smile beamed up at him. “You have your qualities.”

She pulled him in tight and he squeezed back. “Are we safe now?” she asked with her chin resting on his chest, looking up to him.

He gave a simple nod. At some point in the future he would tell her the full story. How a deluded vision given to an old Hobbit changed him from a peaceable citizen to an obsessed serial killer.

“Speech! Speech! Speech!” several people yelled to Bilbo as he walked up to his post at the head of the party. He appeared a little past the recommended dosage of ale if one were to properly address a crowd of this size. At least his high-end clothes matched the occasion.

The two of them ignored it for now. She flashed her eyes in that rare way she had. The way that moved him every time. “I love you, Padder… do you love me?”

He lowered his head and kissed her gently on the lips. “It appears that way.”

 

 

THE END