The pale sun was casting its final shadows through the dusty blinds in the office of Harry McFry, as evening beckoned. Just another chilly, late Tuesday afternoon in January in downtown Birkenhead. Outside, the last shoppers were leaving the local Kwik-Save laden with carrier bags, and the manager had already pulled down half of the shutters.
Harry McFry, proprietor of McFry Investigations, was tidying away loose papers from his desk when the telephone rang. His response as he picked up the receiver was automatic: “McFry, GPI. What can I do for you?” For a moment or two, there was silence at the end of the line, until a soft, sultry voice suddenly said: “I need your help, Mr McFry. I need your help more than I’ve ever needed anyone’s help”. There was an urgency hidden amongst the softness of the woman’s voice which made Harry shift uneasily in his chair. He sensed already that his usual double sourmash whisky on the rocks (with a slice of lime) in the saloon bar of the Brass Balance pub across the street from his office was in jeopardy.
“OK, ma’am – I’m listening. What exactly is the problem?” There was another pause, before she went on “Someone’s stolen my family, and I don’t know what to do.” Her voice was soft as a silk scarf – but Harry knew that it was the kind of scarf that could be pulled around your neck, tied tight and, before you knew it you were done for. He wanted to meet this woman – a dame with a silky, soft voice that hid a threat wasn’t that common in Birkenhead, and he felt a curious need to see her.
“I’m going to need some more details. Can you come in to see me?” he said.
“Where are you exactly?” she asked. Harry reeled off his address. “I know it,” she said, “I can be over in ten minutes.” Harry was unaccustomed to such pushiness. The janitor would be shutting the building up in a few minutes. “No, wait a minute. I’m closing up shop for the day just now, but I’ve got a slot around 10am tomorrow if that’s any good.”
“I need to sort this out now, Mr McFry. Is there anywhere else we can meet?” There was urgency in the voice again.
Harry thought for a moment. “Do you know the local records room in the Public Library?” She did. “Well, I’ll be at the third microfiche reader from the left as you enter the room. I can be there in ten.” Harry was just about to hang up, when it struck him he’d better find out who this was. “Hey, lady” he said, “what’s your name, by the way?”
Her voice was hesitant again. “It’s McFry,” she said, before hanging up.
Harry sat and stared at the telephone, his mind replaying the conversation he’d just had. “McFry”, he said, to no-one in particular. “That name spells trouble in any dictionary you’d care to consult.” There were only three local McFry families he knew of, and he sure as hell would have remembered if he’d come across such a sultry sounding dame before now.
He shuffled the few last papers into an untidy pile and opened the drawer to drop them in, but they were still in his hand when he caught sight of the half empty bottle of Jim Beam at the back of the drawer. He paused, licked his lips, and looked long and hard at the bottle, like he’d never seen it before and needed to remember every detail. With scarcely another thought, he dropped the papers in on top of it, slammed the drawer shut, shrugged himself into a nondescript brown coat, pulled his hat down across his brow and left.
“Evening, Mr McFry,” It was Henry, the janitor, who stopped his mopping for a moment as Harry walked past. Henry took his job seriously. Nothing happened in Meldew Buildings that he didn’t know about.
“Evening, Henry, how’s it going?”
“Yeah! See you tomorrow.”
Harry took three steps towards the stairs, when he heard his office phone ringing again. He paused, began to turn back, then shook his head and continued towards the stairs. The phone continued its dull ringing, like it had nothing better to do for now, so it might as well ring.
Just as Harry was about to enter the stairwell, Henry called out, “You might want to watch yourself, Mr McFry. Old Ma Shipman’s down there. And she’s on the warpath.”
Harry stopped. He was three weeks behind with the rent. “Thanks, Henry,” he mumbled conspiratorially, at the same time turning back to the office to follow his well-worn path to the fire exit. The phone was still ringing. Something made him decide to answer it.
“McFry.” Terse. No nonsense. To the point. If he wasn’t careful, he’d be late for his date with the mystery woman.
The man’s voice on the other end of the phone was quietly forceful – clearly someone who was used to getting his own way. He spoke only a dozen words before the line went dead - but it was clear he meant them.
“Stay away from that library, McFry. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Harry stood for a moment with the handset buzzing in his ear, before replacing it on its cradle. He opened his desk drawer, took out the bottle of Jim Beam, opened it and took a short, yet deliberate pull on its contents, before slapping the cork back and laying it carefully back in its home. He then opened the drawer beneath, took out a squat, snub-nosed revolver and, after tucking it into the holster under his arm, fastened the buttons on his coat and set off for the library.
Chapter ThreeAs he entered the street, Harry McFry shrugged himself deeper into his overcoat and pulled his hat down lower over his face. A depressing and desultory drizzle had begun, and the keen wind that was blowing it chilled him to the core. The short path to the Public Library seemed as if it would never end, and he was pleased to push open one leaf of the large double doors and step into the warm interior which, on any other day, might have been stifling.
He nodded a greeting to the security guard and, under the pretence of unfastening his coat and shaking the damp drizzle off his hat, quickly scanned the entrance foyer for anyone he might know, as well as those he didn’t. While appearing to be reading the Information Board, he carefully checked everyone in the foyer, looking for tell-tale body language that said “I don’t belong here”. He was waiting, too, for that quietly confident voice to whisper in his ear, “Time you weren’t here, McFry”.
When it didn’t come, he began to walk up the broad staircase that led to the local records office, but after three steps, he tutted and snapped his fingers in disgust and turned sharply, a perfect performance of ‘The Man Who Has Forgotten Something’. Retracing his steps to the foyer, he glanced quickly at the people there. Who had begun to rise from their seat? Who had suddenly discarded their newspaper in an untidy heap on the floor? Who looked as though they had been caught with their fingers in the till? No-one. The foyer looked exactly the same as it had when he had walked in. To complete the illusion of ‘Mr Forgetful’, he grabbed a bus timetable from the display stand, thrust it into his pocket and started again up the stairs.
Once in the Local History Research room, Harry made for his favourite microfiche reader and threw his coat onto the back of the chair. Before he could even begin to sit down a voice like honey drizzled on a warm croissant reached out to him from the neighbouring machine.
He turned to his left and saw her for the first time. The eyes that regarded him matched the dress, full and blue; her lips were redder than a number 3 pool ball. She looked like she had poured herself into her dress until it was full to the brim, and then added some more. Her hair was black and hung shining around her shoulders. With difficulty, Harry dragged himself away from the view and replied, “That’s me, Miss . . . McFry?”
“Call me Laurel,” she said quietly, before adding, after an almost imperceptible pause, “cousin.”
Chapter FourGenealogical private eye Harry McFry stirred from his sleep, shifting uneasily on the creaky sofabed in the one room bedsit he rented on the top floor of a rambling, Edwardian villa in Rock Ferry. As he sat up and rubbed a hand across his brow, he began to piece together what had happened last night after he’d walked into the reference room at the records office of the Birkenhead Library.
‘That was some dame!’ he thought to himself, as he made his way to the ‘kitchen’ – a corner of the room where a sink, a drainer and a small oven sat. A tiny fridge was perched on a kitchen table, where the single chair told anyone who wanted to know that Harry wasn’t much one for entertaining. He turned on the only gas ring that still worked, lit it with a match and pulled the already full kettle over onto it. Taking a tin out from a cupboard on the wall, he began spooning the finely-ground Java coffee into a glass cafetiere. The world never made Harry’s acquaintance until he’d drunk at least two mugs of the stuff.
He peered out the small window next to the sink as he waited for the kettle to boil. Nothing much happening on the street below. A dog was sniffing at a lamppost and the paper boy rode past on his bike, aiming a kick at the dog, who was savvy enough to scoot away long before the arc of the foot had reached anywhere near the place where its rump had been. The street was now as empty as a politician’s promise. It was a dull, drizzly day, just like it had been last night, at the library.
Laurel McFry had been everything her voice suggested. Young and elegant, she’d stood with the poise of a debutante who had just come out of finishing school. Harry and Laurel were the only occupants of the room. Beyond the large counter built into the wall, Harry had seen the archivist was busy folding away maps from that day’s researches.
“I think you’ve some explaining to do, Miss McFry. If we were related, somehow I think I’d know. And what’s all this about your family being stolen?” Harry had spoken quietly. He didn’t want the archivist hearing. The girl had beckoned Harry to sit down, and they each pulled out a chair at the large, oak table in the centre of the room.
She was 28, maybe 29 years old, Harry reckoned, although her finely made-up face gave her a younger look. He’d automatically done the math: year of birth, 1978 or 1979. Chances were, the day she was born he’d have been listening to the Sex Pistols in the chaotic bedroom of one of the many punk rock girlfriends he seemed to have had around then.
“You’ll have to bear with me, Mr McFry – or … may I call you Harry? It’s a complicated story.” It always was, where a woman was concerned, Harry thought.
“You can call me whatever you like, Miss McFry – just don’t call me stupid.” Just then, he had heard a crash in the corridor outside. Through the frosted glass windows in the door, he caught sight of the shadow of someone rushing past. “Wait here,” he’d said to her, and jumped up to investigate the source of the noise. The corridor was clear, but a bookcase near the door to the records room had fallen – or been pushed – over. Harry saw that a small, leather portfolio was strewn among the few books on the floor. He glanced around to make sure he wasn’t being watched, picked it and a couple of the books up, and returned to the room, carefully wedging the portfolio between the two books. He'd had only a moment to notice that the initials 'DKL' were blocked out in gold letters on the front of the leather.
“It was nothing. Someone in a hurry must have knocked the bookcase in the corridor over.” He saw her glance at the books, and smiled.
“Been wanting to look at these three for a while now. Thought I’d grab them while I was there.” He wasn’t sure she’d bought it, but Harry knew that rule number one when dealing with a client was that they only needed to know what you wanted them to know. He’d look at that portfolio more closely in due time. “Now, where were we with this complicated story of yours?” he asked, trying less successfully than he hoped to mask his disdain.
She then proceeded to tell him how, for the last five years, she had been researching her McFry family history. Most of her work had been centred on the Shropshire McFry’s – a branch Harry was aware of, but which his own line had never connected with. He already knew a little about them – drapers and milliners in the nineteenth century, and just your ordinary agricultural labourers before then. If he recalled right, one of the farmer’s sons had been a bit smarter than his siblings. He’d managed to save a bit of capital, hung up his ploughshare and opened a little haberdashery shop in the town of Bridgnorth. The rest was textbook – a good marriage into money, and the birth of a small empire based on selling cloth and linen. From what Laurel McFry had told him, she was descended from this same James McFry. ‘The thing is, Harry, all the records I had of this family were photocopies taken from the census records at the records office. Then, this year, I got out a membership from Ancestry. I thought it might be useful to have the digital images so I could link them to my tree. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to find them”.
Harry tried to maintain an interest, but his mind had wandered already to what might be in the portfolio nestled between the two books on the table in front of him. He knew it wasn’t professional – it wasn’t as if he didn’t need the money that a case like this might bring (his overdue office rent needed attention, for one thing) – but there was nothing yet for him to get his teeth into. As far as he could see, this was just a simple case of a dumb dame who hadn’t really got to grips with the advanced search facility offered by the Ancestry site. Sure, he could take her money, find the records and everyone would be happy – but where was the pride in that?
“Lady – I like you,” he had told her, staring her full in the face so that he almost caught her blush, “so here’s what I propose to do. Give me a day, and I’ll get the information you need. And there’s no charge, as you’re a family member.” He had wanted to add the words ‘however distant’, but held back out of politeness to her.
“You won’t find them, Mr McFry,” (not ‘Harry’ now, he had noticed). “They’ve definitely been stolen”.
A shrill whistle suddenly sounded. The kettle had boiled, and Harry could have his first coffee.