Friday, 9 March 2007

Chapter 42

Harry and Danny made their way diagonally across Hamilton Square, just as the clock in the old Town Hall building started to chime for 11am. They were too engrossed in conversation to notice Laurel McFry, still sat on a bench in the far corner of the square. But she noticed them and, as she watched the two figures disappear into the Military Emporium, she couldn’t help wondering how exclusive Harry McFry’s commitment to her case really was. She’d have to watch that she got her money’s worth from Harry, she thought. Particularly if money was going to be tighter for her, in the future. Maybe she would ring him tomorrow, just to see how he was getting along.

Harry and Danny had found the door to the shop locked, and had waited while Stan came to open it. “Don’t say anything, Danny – leave this to me,” Harry said. Danny hid his relief at this instruction well enough.

“Come in, Harry, come in!” Stan said, his smile saying ‘I’ve got some good news for you’. “Who’s your sidekick?” Harry introduced Danny as his assistant, working on a case at the moment. “Nothing to do with the medals, Stan,” he said, even as he noticed the middle-aged man near the counter rising from his seat.

Stan made the introductions. Colin McAllistair seemed to look at Harry as if he knew him from somewhere. Harry had already worked out that he’d come across McAllistair before, about 8 years BG, he thought. Probably at a conference somewhere. He remembered he was something of an expert on the Spanish Civil War. Stan had done well to draft him in, he was thinking, as the shop owner collected a couple of chairs from his back room and brought them through.

“Harry McFry – I seem to know that name from somewhere. What’s your line of work, Mr McFry?” Colin asked, his soft Scots accent making the most of ‘McFry’. Harry was circumspect.

“Danny and I are private investigators, Mr McAllistair. How about yourself?” If Colin McAllistair couldn’t remember meeting him, Harry didn’t see any sense in disabusing him.

“Oh, I’m a jobbing historian. Inter-war European stuff, but a particular interest in the Spanish Civil War.” Harry congratulated himself on his memory: ‘All cylinders firing well, Harry’, he told himself. “And where do you ply your trade, Mr McAllistair?” Harry posed the question in a friendly way, unbuttoning his overcoat and laying his hat on the floor beside his chair.

“I was at Oxford for some time. Now I’m in North London. I’m a freelance writer. There’s a living to be made, of sorts, from being an expert in something like the civil war. Of course, the explosion in satellite TV stations has helped enormously. In fact, I’m advisor to a couple of programmes in production at the moment.” Harry tried not to look too impressed, although privately he was. Danny sat, just a little in awe now: maybe he could get into that line someday?

There was a short silence until Colin realized Harry wasn’t going to be offering any congratulations on his achievements.

“Well now, Mr McFry. I believe you want to know a little more about your medals?” McAllistair turned to pick up the velvet pad with the medals on, and laid them on his lap. “Tell me, how did you come about them?”

“They were my uncle’s. We found them when we were clearing his house after he died,” Harry said. Stan, sitting watching the discussion, still didn’t believe Harry’s story about the dead uncle – perhaps he’d known Harry too long, could read him better – but he noticed that McAllistair was ready to accept it.

“So often the case, I’m afraid,” McAllistair said, nevertheless wondering who Harry’s uncle might be, and why he would have Lillian Blyth’s medals. “And what do you know about them?”

“Only what Stan told me. Quite rare. Issued during the Spanish Civil War to someone who did something very meritorious. Nothing else I’m afraid.” As he said this, he realized McAllistair may actually know who the medals were issued to, if they were as rare as Stan had said. He’d better cover himself some more. “I don’t know that my uncle fought in Spain, mind you. He never mentioned it. For that matter, the medals may not even be his. He was a bit of a collector – a hoarder – and we found all sorts of stuff when we emptied his house.”

McAllistair seemed to be considering what Harry had just said. Danny, meanwhile, wondered if Harry was protesting too much.

“When did your uncle die, Mr McFry?” Colin asked, looking Harry full square as he did so.

Quickly, Harry was thinking how best to respond. “Just a couple of weeks ago.” Too late, Harry was realizing McAllistair was luring him somewhere he didn’t want to go.

“And how old was he?” The softness of the Scots brogue masked what might have been a stiletto knife of a question. Harry did a quick mental calculation. To have fought in Spain, his ‘uncle’ would have had to have been born in at least 1920. “He was 89,” was all Harry replied.

“Very sad, very sad. I wonder, Mr McFry, whether your uncle ever mentioned a Lillian Blyth?” The question hung on the air, Danny anxious, all of sudden, that Harry might be out of his depth.

“I’m afraid not, Mr McAllistair. I don’t know the name. Should I?”

Only Stan seemed not quite up to speed with the discussion, like a novice poker player pitched into a high stakes game.

“What I can tell you is that each of these medals was issued to Lillian Blyth. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Blyth, but I did meet her lover.” McAllistair paused. “His name was Jonathan Harcourt.” At least Harry could play the truth card now: “I’m sorry to say I don’t know that name, either. I’m at a loss to know how my uncle came by these medals, unless he bought them somewhere.”

“Jonathan Harcourt was a left-wing journalist before the war. He was sent to cover the Spanish elections that took place just before the civil war started,” McAllistair said (wondering, even as he said it, whether Harry already knew this). “He died sometime after 1975, which was when I interviewed him as part of my research for my thesis on the war. He had an identical set of medals to these, issued by the Republican Government in Exile sometime shortly after the end of the Second World War. Mr Harcourt sold his medals for what was a considerable sum in those days, Mr McFry, and I have no doubt that this set you have here is no less valuable. In fact, probably more. I’m afraid I know next to nothing about Lillian Blyth, except what Jonathan Harcourt told me”. McAllistair picked up the largest of the medals and flipped it over. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that these are her medals. How your uncle came by them is another story, and probably not important.”

Harry considered the information McAllistair had just shared with them. “So they’re worth … ?” he said, letting the question hang.

“I cannot be certain, exactly, but I could arrange to have them valued for you. Probably in excess of £30,000. You see, they’re of international importance. The Spanish Government would love to have these in one of it’s collections, I am sure.” McAllistair seemed to be wanting to ask something else of Harry. “I wonder, Mr McFry, whether there was anything else with the medals?” His approach seemed tentative, Harry noticed, as if he knew something he didn’t want to give away.

“What do you mean?” Harry said, genuinely puzzled at McAllistair’s question.

“Well, we might expect a certificate of some kind, awarded at the same time as the medals. Perhaps it was in the box?”

Harry knew, then, that his instinctive mistrust of McAllistair had been right.

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