Thursday, 15 February 2007

Chapter 26

The manager at Chapter Road Health Centre, a new building on the corner of a leafy road on the outskirts of the North Yorkshire market town of Thirsk, was turning off the lights in the waiting room at the end of another busy day at the surgery. Busier, even, than usual, Mabel Harris reflected, since Dr Lawrence had been off that morning and hadn’t returned until around 2.30pm, leaving his partners to deal with his regular patients. Even then, he’d told her, curtly, that he wanted the rest of the afternoon kept free – an extra inconvenience for her to manage. She supposed that he might be catching up on paper-work. Now, she noticed, he was still in his room, a thin slip of light showing from under the door: she’d have to let him know she was locking up.

The people who truly liked Dacre Lawrence were few. He was popular with a certain type of patient – the elderly, in particular, seemed to revel in his slightly superior, off-hand manner: perhaps because that was what they had been brought up to expect from a doctor. He could be brusque and dismissive of patients and colleagues alike and, as the senior partner in the practice, he commanded due deference from the staff working there. She took a deep breath as she knocked on his door.

There was no response. She wondered whether to knock again, and risk his wrath for seeming so intrusive. She waited a few seconds, realizing she had no choice and gathering herself before rapping on the door, more loudly this time. Still nothing. He must have left without her knowing, she thought – typical! What if there’d been a fire, and the building had been evacuated? It would have been down to her to explain Dr Lawrence’s absence to the firemen. Her imagination had taken hold, now, and she pictured a huddled crowd of staff and patients in the car park outside the building, wondering if Dacre Lawrence was trapped inside his room. Firemen rushing down smoking corridors, risking their lives to find him, when all the time he was out with his golfing buddies.

She turned the handle, slowly, and pushed open the door. Inside, she saw Dr Lawrence, sat with his back to her, his computer screen still flickering away in front of him.

“Oh … I’m sorry, Dr Lawrence!” She was blushing, expecting him to turn around and give her a dressing down for so rudely entering his room, uninvited. Instinctively, she pulled back But there was no response – not a movement – from Lawrence. Mabel screamed.

*

Harry ordered the drinks, and stood at the bar while waiting for them to be poured. Danny was still at the table by the window, looking calm enough, Harry thought. So … innocent little Laurel McFry had been two-timing him: she’d had someone else working on the case of her missing family, and she hadn’t thought it necessary to tell him. He wondered whether Danny Longhurst had, like Harry, offered his services for free – probably not: he was smarter than that.

There were still a few things Harry needed to know before things went any further. Who was the old woman in Shropshire Danny was working for? How come he’d ended up with the medals – and he wondered, briefly, how Stan Redfearn was faring in finding out more about them – and then sent them to Harry? And what about those phone calls he’d had? Nothing seemed to add up, and Harry wasn’t sure if he could take everything Danny told him as gospel. He took the drinks over to the table.

“You’d better tell me about the phone calls, before we take this any further,” he told the boy.

Danny took a quick drink of his vodka, and started again:

“There’s more to this than just missing data on a census, Mr McFry,” he said.

“You’d better call me Harry, son,” McFry said, tiring of Danny’s formality.

“And you can call me Danny – and I’m 19, Harry, so less of the ‘son’, if you don’t mind,” and he’d fixed a stare on Harry that said ‘don’t underestimate me’, even if there was a slight smile accompanying it.

“What I think has been happening is that someone, for some reason I don’t yet know, has been systematically altering census pages held by all the major genealogy companies. I think it may have something to do with Laurel McFry’s inheritance.” Danny waited for Harry’s reaction, which was swift.

“Wait a minute, son” – Harry checked himself – “sorry, I mean Danny. Are you telling me that someone’s been able to alter on-line census records? How is that possible?” Somewhere deep in Harry’s brain, someone was sticking a post-it note: ‘Must try to get more up-to-speed with IT’.

“It’s not difficult. I had a go myself. I took a digital image of a page from the 1881 census at random. I cut and paste a few lines here and a few lines there, swapped them around. By the end, no-one would have guessed they weren’t original images.”

Harry was sceptical. It was one thing to play around with a few images.

“OK, OK, I’m with you so far. But how does this end up on a server for Ancestry.com, and what about the LDS index?” The Church of the Latter Day Saints had indexed the entire 1881 census, and it was freely available for reference by anyone with a PC.

“That’s the technical part – but I can’t believe it’s not possible. With enough money, you could hire any one of a thousand techno-geeks who had the skill to hack into those companies’ servers. They’re secure, but they’re not the CIA, “ Danny said, smiling, but then suddenly serious again. “There’s a flaw in all this, obviously.”

Harry tried to pretend he’d spotted it. “Obviously,” he said, taking a swig of his drink. But he waited for Danny to continue.

“This only accounts for the digital data. There are thousands of sets of microfiche out there, all copies of the original census. Whoever is behind this wouldn’t have been able to alter those. Or at least, not all of them. My guess was, if they did anything, they’d target the half a dozen records offices where McFry descendents were living. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.” Danny sat back and waited for a response from McFry.

Harry was rubbing his chin, ruminating. “So whoever is behind all of this is taking it seriously?” he asked. He had to admire the kid.

“So seriously, that if you were to go to the Birkenhead or Shropshire records offices, you’d find their microfiche copies were no different from the one’s now up there in cyberspace. I’m betting that the same would hold true for the North Yorkshire ones, as well,” Danny said.

North Yorkshire? What’s that got to do with it?” Harry asked, wondering now whether Danny Longhurst had already solved Laurel McFry’s case: he seemed to know a lot more than Harry had imagined.

“That’s where my portfolio comes in,” Danny replied, but Harry was conscious he hadn’t answered his original question, and fired back:

“Before we move onto the portfolio, you were going to tell me about the phone calls…”

Danny, looking sheepish again, cleared his throat. “You see, McFry,” he said, his voice now two octaves deeper, the same as the voice that was on Harry’s answerphone, and the same as the one that had warned him off going to the library, “it’s like this,” and the voice returned to it’s teenage self. “I knew Laurel McFry was going to meet you at the library. She told me so. But I couldn’t be certain you would take her seriously. So, I thought if I gave you a warning – ‘put the frightners on’, so to speak – you’d take the whole thing a little more seriously. And it seemed to work, as far as I can see.” He was looking more confident again, Harry saw. This was definitely one very smart kid. Harry didn’t like the idea he’d been fooled, but he had to admire the manner of execution. ‘So far, so plausible,’ Harry thought, though he was still processing how someone might switch census data on a computer server and get away with it.

“And what about the medals?” Harry challenged.

Danny paused before replying, and emptied his glass. “Lillian McFry, the woman from Shropshire who hired me to ‘find’ Laurel McFry, gave me those medals. I let a couple of days go by after I met her, then called to let her know I’d found her. She asked me to go back down, as she thought I’d be able to find a way of getting the medals to Laurel without her knowing where they’d come from. They’re quite valuable, I believe.”

Harry had caught up with the plot. “So, you thought if you sent them to me I’d realize they were connected to Laurel McFry, and pass them onto her?”

“Basically, yes. But then I saw you going into the shop this lunchtime. I got worried then, thought you might be … selling them.” Danny looked embarrassed as he said this, but not as embarrassed as Harry felt. Did the whole world know how much Harry McFry needed money? He remembered the youth on the bench in Hamilton Square – that had been Danny Longhurst, he now realized.

“As a matter of fact, Mr Longhurst,” Harry getting formal to re-assert some authority, “I took the medals there to get an idea of their value, and to find out a little more about them. There’s not much Stan Redfearn doesn’t know about military memorabilia. They’re still there, but it’s too late to pick them up today.”

“That’s OK”, Danny said, realizing how the implication of having accused Harry of wanting to sell the medals had wounded him. “Maybe we can work on this case together, Harry?” His request was tentative, and he wasn’t sure how Harry would take it.

Harry thought for a moment. By instinct, he was one of life’s loners. He wasn’t sure how it would work, partnering up with someone else, but he also figured that young Danny Longhurst, working alone, already knew more about Laurel McFry’s missing family than he would have done after a week of research. Harry McFry wasn’t stupid.

“Sure, kid. Let’s do it,” he found himself saying. And if they were going to be working together, he might as well know the truth about Harry: “I think it’s your round, Danny,” he said. “Mine’s a double whiskey sour.”

2 comments:

Enumerator said...

Over two days now without another episode. Come on Mr Hamburger, please put us out of our misery!

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Alas, a technical difficulty or three has prevented publication for the last couple of days. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
Besides, a bit of misery never hurt anyone!
Kind regards

THJnr