Too Many Tooks by Kathryn Ramage

They went out to the meadow. Merry accompanied Paladin and Frodo as far as the bridge, then left them to go find Pippin. Paladin took Frodo to the center of the field to meet Chief Shirriff Thornbreak, who was directing all his shirriffs, the lads, and a number of local farmhands to search the grove, the tall grass, and the creek for the missing knife.

"Find it yet, Mr. Thornbreak?" Paladin called out to him as they approached.

"Not yet, your Thainship!" the Chief Shirriff shouted back. "There's not a sign of it."

"This is Frodo Baggins," Paladin introduced him. "A relation of mine from Hobbiton. He's had some experience of murders and investigations, and I've asked him to look into this. You're to give him whatever assistance you can."

"Yes, sir." Shirriff Thornbreak gave his red-feathered cap a respectful tug and regarded the Thain's young companion with curiosity. If he resented this intrusion into his professional domain, he did not show it; Frodo thought he was probably used to deferring to the Thain's authority, as anyone who lived around Tuckborough must be. "Now then, Mr. Baggins, how can I help you?"

Frodo had no idea, but Paladin was watching him expectantly, as if he were hoping to see some display of brilliant detecting this very minute. "I suppose you can begin by telling me what you've learned so far," he said. "I wouldn't like to go over the same ground twice."

Shirriff Thornbreak chuckled. "Oh, we've been over the same ground more'n once this morning, to be sure!" He seemed to think this a very good joke. "But I take it you mean in the facts in the case, not in this here field, Mr. Baggins? Very well then! What we've got so far is that the lad who was killed was Tobold Clover, aged three and thirty--he'd just come of age this midsummer past--and the eldest son of Mr. Togold Clover, who's our butcher in Tookbank. He was killed last night around sunset in that patch of trees over there, though what he'd gone there for, I couldn't say..." The shirriff cast a wary glance at Paladin.

"Never mind that yet," said Paladin. "You'll have your chance to speak to Everard about it shortly. His father agrees he's fit to answer questions this morning."

"Yes, sir, thank'ee," Thornbreak nodded deferentially, then continued to Frodo, "The ground's dry, and there've been more'n enough folk on the spot since, but it looks as if there was some fighting in the trees. We've had a look over the poor lad's clothes--there's grass stains on his trousers and some dirt, and his shirt's torn as if he'd been knocked down and was scuffling before he was stabbed. We've had a look at his body too. I can tell you that Toby was stabbed to the heart by a short, sharp knife, the kind you'd use to carve fine work on a bit of wood, or cut up a piece of fruit. Not bigger'n that. That's all we can say about it 'til we see it for ourselves."

"Do you think that when you find it, it will give you an idea of who it belonged to?" asked Frodo.

"That's our hope, young sir. And it's my thought that this same knife might've done another job last night too." Shirriff Thornbreak turned to Paladin. "You ought to know, your Thainship, that there's another boy missing--Fenny Ragwort, the butcher's 'prentice. He never came home last night from his work, and no one knows what's become of him. He might've been killed just the same as this one, only he hasn't been found yet. If Mr. Everard hadn't happened upon him, who knows how long Toby Clover would've laid out here before he was noticed?"

That the butcher's son should be killed on the same night as his apprentice had disappeared certainly seemed like more than coincidence; Frodo wondered just how the two were connected. "Thank you, Shirriff," he said. "I don't have any other questions for you right now. I'd like to have a look about, if you don't mind."

"That'll be fine," the Chief Shirriff consented. To Paladin, he said, "I'll go talk to Mr. Everard now, your Thainship, if you've no objection."

Paladin had none. The two of them went away, leaving Frodo in the middle of the meadow.

He looked around, picking out people he knew among the searchers: Merry and Pippin were hunting along the westward wall, not far from the place where Frodo had seen Toby climb over less than two days ago. Reginard was wandering the grass near the grove, but he didn't seem to be looking very hard. Frodo wondered if he were afraid that finding the knife would implicate his younger brother, or if Reg believed, as Paladin did, that the knife wasn't anywhere here to be found. Ferdi Took was on the other side of the grove with Dodi and Ilbie--all three boys were crouched on their hands and knees, but that tow-head was bright in morning sunlight amid the tall yellow-green grass.

Frodo decided to consult Ferdi, as perhaps the one person he could freely discuss a certain delicate aspect of this case with. There were some questions he wouldn't dream of asking Paladin or the Chief Shirriff, but Ferdi might be able to answer.

The boys looked up as Frodo approached them. "Good morning!" Doderic greeted him cheerfully. "We were just watching you talk with Uncle Paladin and the Chief Shirriff. Are you looking into this?"

"Yes, both Aunt Esme and Uncle Paladin have asked me to."

"You aren't going to go around accusing all your nearest relations of murder again, are you?" Ilbie teased.

"I hope not!" Frodo tried to match his cousins' joking tones, but he meant it most sincerely.

"It ought to be easier for you this time, having official approval and the Chief Shirriff's help," said Ilbie. "No one can refuse to answer your questions without looking odd in Uncle Paladin's eyes."

"Is there anything you want to ask us, Frodo?" added Dodi. "You know just where we were when all this happened."

"Actually, it was Ferdi I wanted to speak to."

The two brothers exchanged exaggerated looks of alarm. "Have a care, Ferdi!" Dodi warned him.

"You're Everard's closest friend," Frodo explained to Ferdi. "I thought you might be the best one to ask about him and this Toby."

Ferdi nodded. "Yes, certainly. I'll be glad to help. Ask away. Don't worry," he told the other two, "I'm sure Frodo won't have me arrested. He knows where I was when poor Toby died too." He let Frodo take his arm and they walked a little distance away from Dodi and Ilbie so they could speak privately.

"Did you know Toby Clover?" asked Frodo.

"Yes, better than anyone--except for Evvy, of course. I was with Evvy when he first met Toby, as a matter of fact. That was about three years ago. We'd gone to the pub at Tookbank, and Toby was there with his brother. They'd just come to town."

"Are they a new family? I'd heard that Toby's father was the Tookbank butcher."

"He is," answered Ferdi. "There are Clovers all around Tookbank, and have been for ages, but the butcher and his family only came to live here recently. When we first met the lads, we went out of our way to make them feel welcome--bought them rounds of ale, played darts, that sort of thing. They said they'd heard some awful tales about how high-and-mighty the Tooks were, and we tried our best to show them it wasn't true."

"Evvy and Toby became friends right away?"

"Oh, yes, great friends." Ferdi paused, then added in a lower voice, "More than friends."

Frodo nodded. "I wondered if it weren't so. I discovered them, by accident, in that grove when I was out for a walk the first evening I came here."

"Yes, they used to meet there often. I didn't realize that they still were."

"Did you know about it from the beginning?"

"Evvy's never kept secrets from me. It wasn't a great secret even among the rest of the family, but there was no fuss about it before Ev decided to marry Melly--and then Toby began to be troublesome." Ferdi shrugged. "You know how it is among the lads. Everybody does it. I think girls are nicer myself, but there'd be such a lot of trouble if we tried to play around with them the way we do with other boys! The most you can respectably do with the girls is try to get kisses. At least with the lads, it's accepted as long as it's kept quiet, and it doesn't go on too long. All the lads play, but unfortunately, some take it more seriously than others."

"And Toby took it more seriously than Everard?"

"Oh, yes, certainly. Evvy was the one getting married, and Toby didn't like it. Why would anyone want to get rid of him otherwise?" Ferdi shook his head. "I can see why someone would want Toby out of the way to avoid a scandal--but to kill him! That seems an awfully cruel way of doing it. Whoever did must have wanted to be sure he was gone for good."

This confirmed Frodo's impression that whoever had killed Toby might very well be one of the Tooks. "I'd like to talk to Everard. Do you think he's up to it?" If Paladin had allowed the Chief Sherriff to see Everard, then surely he would not be barred.

"I'm sure they won't say 'no,' not to the Thain's own official investigator." Ferdi smiled. "I'll go with you."
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