Juan Guttierez descended the stairs with the confidence of someone who was on the final pages of a novel they had been enjoying, knew they had only a few paragraphs left to read and had already worked out the conclusion of the story.
He was wearing a casual, sand-coloured linen suit, a crisp cotton shirt and brown loafers, the absence of a tie his concession to being called into work on a Sunday.
As he neared the bottom of the stairs, he seemed to take the measure of Harry McFry and Ana, even as they rose from the bench where they’d been sitting.
He smiled as he introduced himself, offering them both a warm and hearty handshake. He carried under his left arm a leather document folder.
Harry was almost as pleased as Ana to hear that Snr Guttierez spoke good English. The last thing Ana had wanted was to act as a translator for the morning, while Harry realized it would speed matters up without the need for Ana to repeat everything the man from the ministry said. Harry guessed he was in his early 50’s, his grey hair cropped fashionably short, and his grey-rimmed spectacles smart and trendy.
“So! At last we can solve the mystery of our missing bond!” he exclaimed, with a grin, and he gestured to a corridor to the right of them, saying “Please, follow me,” taking them past the security desk where the guard acknowledged him with a nod.
The conference room he took them to looked out over a courtyard inside the building. A long, dark oak table took up most of the room, which was furnished in period pieces at each end, apart from a projector screen on one wall. Ana imagined the decisions that might have been taken in this room, as she pulled a chair out and took her seat at the table. Harry was wondering, instead, what prevarication might have taken place there since, if he knew civil servants, they were better at that than decisions.
“Let me fill you in on a little of our country’s history, Mr McFry,” Snr Guttierez said, standing at the opposite end of the table where Harry and Ana sat, so that they both of them almost felt they were students again, attending a lecture. “Forgive me if you know some of this already…” he added.
“You know, of course, that the Nationalists won the Civil War – that is, if you accept that there was anyone who really ‘won’ that war.” Harry knew that a ministry official was paid to choose his words carefully, but nodded as the man continued his lecture.
“After the Second World War, there was an ill-fated attempt to establish a republican government in exile, in Mexico. The people who tried to do this had issued a series of bonds to attempt to finance the resistance movement in the years after 1939. They were actually quite successful. Apart from the peasants and the labourers and the factory workers who contributed small amounts – actually quite large in today’s terms, we mustn’t forget - many left-wing sympathizers the world over contributed quite large sums of money to the cause.
“It came to nothing. We know that some of the money collected was used to repay the so-called ‘debt of honour’ to the Soviet Union, who were still claiming well into the 1950’s that the Spanish people owed them $50 million. The rest – well, who knows? I suppose running a quasi-government, with its ministers and ambassadors all living outside of the country might have been expensive.”
Here, Snr Gittierez paused for a moment, and then smiled. “You know, Mr McFry, I have one of the best jobs in the world. It falls to me to locate all the surviving bondholders, and to arrange for the redemption of those same bonds.
“Three years ago, our Government determined that it would repay the debts as a matter of honour. Since then, we have successfully redeemed bonds worth over £90 million. In the case of the bond you say you have, this was purchased for the not insignificant sum of £70,000 at the time. It was easily the biggest purchase – by far – of any individual bond.
“I have personally spent some two years, working with my team, trying to locate anyone who might have a claim on the bond. Our records show…” and here, he sat down and opened his document holder, “that it was issued in the name of Stuart McFry.”
Harry was hanging on Snr Guttierez’s every word. So! Stuart McFry – the eldest of the McFry brothers – had purchased the bond.
“Stuart McFry was one of three brothers who were heirs to a fortune,” Harry said. “McFry’s were a successful clothing manufacturers in Britain,” he added, by way of explanation.
“Yes – I realize this. And may I ask what your connection to the family is?” Snr Guttierez was looking seriously at Harry.
“None. I’m not related in any way to them,” Harry said, crisply.
Snr Guttierez considered Harry’s response. “Then, I do wonder how you have come to have the bond in your possession. Do you think I could see it?”
Harry nodded. “Of course – here…” he said, pulling it from his jacket pocket and holding it across the table. The ministry official stood up and walked to where Harry and Ana were sitting, and plucked the bond from Harry’s hand. He sat down next to them and opened the paper out on the table in front of them.
For a moment or two he studied it.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that this is our missing bond. It tallies with the file records we have. And here is ‘the nub of it’, as I think you would say in England…” He pointed to a line or two of the text.
“It says here quite clearly that in the case of the death of the person who has subscribed the bond, then it shall revert to a one Lillian Blyth and, in the case of her death it should revert to her daughter, and similarly to the daughter’s daughter.
“Now. We know that Stuart McFry did die. We have seen his death certificate. We have also seen that, although he married, he was childless. We simply haven’t been able to locate a Lillian Blyth anywhere in the world. That isn’t surprising, of course. Whether she was Stuart’s lover, his sister who had married, his mother or merely just a casual acquaintance, there seems to be no Lillian Blyth alive. Or any record of her marriage.”
Snr Guttierez sighed. “So, I am left wondering, still, how you came by this bond?”
Harry told him all about Lillian, and watched as the official’s eyes widened with growing incredulity at the story.
“Wait a minute, Mr McFry! Are you telling me that Lillian Blyth is still alive? That is just amazing!”
“Well, she’s an amazing lady, Snr Guttierez. She was issued with medals by the republican government in exile, you know,” Harry replied, “and yes – she’s very much alive. At least she was, when I saw her on Friday. She’s made of strong stuff, that woman.”
Snr Guttierez thought for a second. “I still cannot believe that someone who fought in that war is still there, all these years later. But, tell me … do you think that even a woman of her strength could survive the shock of being told that the piece of paper here in front of us is worth around £20 million?”