Friday, 28 September 2007

Chapter 148

Back in the kitchen, Harry found that Bill Blunt had begun the washing up. He’d taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and was cleaning the cups as quietly as he could, with half an ear to Lillian McFry as she continued her account in the lounge. He looked up as Harry entered the room, staring at the potted plant he was carrying.

“Galloway?” he asked, simply. His voice was a half whisper. Harry shook his head. He pointed to the back door, towards the end of the kitchen.
“I think we need to talk,” he replied, in equally hushed tones, as he placed the plant on the small table behind Bill.

Bill smiled, drying his hands on a tea towel. He figured Harry was - at last - prepared to trade information. Suddenly, the prospect was real that he might understand this confounded story. Harry knew he had met Cyril Galloway, and that he knew a thing or two about Jonathan Harcourt he thought Harry wouldn’t – and wasn’t it in both their interests to make a deal?
“Sure. The tea can wait a few minutes,” he replied, collecting his jacket from a hook on the back of the kitchen door as he followed Harry out to the tiny back garden at the rear of the bungalow. Once they were both outside, Harry closed the door. A black cat, curled beside the base of an ornamental birdbath set in the middle of small, square lawn, opened an eye, but didn’t budge. Harry pulled out a cigarette, and lit it. As he drew its contents deep into his lungs, he leant against the back wall of the bungalow.

“Gotta give those up, Harry!” Bill said, still smiling.
“Yeah,.well … maybe I will, when this case is sorted out,” he said. Someday, it would be possible for a detective to investigate a case without the need for nicotine but, as Harry saw it, the long hand of government legislation hadn’t reached that far just yet. He paused a moment, Bill waiting for him to continue. It seemed like he was just making conversation when he said “What time is it, Bill?”
Bill Blunt checked his watch. “It’s half past one,” he said. Harry tried to gauge just how tense his old friend was. How close was that new deadline, he wondered? It was hard to tell. Well, there was one way to find out, he supposed…

“I take it this week’s Beagle hasn’t gone to print yet?” he asked.
Bill winced – unwittingly, but just enough to let Harry see he was right about the extension he’d negotiated.
“It’s hard to move a deadline, Harry…” he replied, just a little lamely.
“Well, not by more than a few hours, I expect. Still – you’ve got the bones of your story, haven’t you?"

That – for Bill - was the problem: unless he worked out how those medals were linked to Laurel McFry, he’d have an irate editor to contend with when he limped back to Birkenhead later that day. He wasn’t smiling, now, and he wondered, briefly, whether Harry had conspired to get him out of the lounge so as to miss a vital part of Lillian’s testimony.

“Look, Harry,” he said. “We go back a long way. You’ve got your job to do, and I’ve got mine. We should be helping each other!”
Harry looked at him, and took another drag on his cigarette. It didn’t sound like much of a plea, and Harry wasn’t in the mood to swap facts. He decided to test the water.

“So … help me. Tell me about Galloway.”
“What’s to tell? He was in Birkenhead, sniffing around after you. I met him in a bar. He thought you had Lillian’s medals.”
“You told me that already,” Harry said, “when I rang you from Spain.”
“Ah, yes – Madrid!” Bill exclaimed. “You never did tell me why you went there. Did you sell the medals, Harry?”
“Of course I didn’t sell the medals!” Harry said. “I went there to follow up another part of the case.”
“Anything to do with Jonathan Harcourt? Or, should I say, John Lawrence?” Bill thought this was his trump card, and was cautious about playing it carelessly, but he knew, too, that there wasn’t much time left for his game.
“John Lawrence?” Harry feigned ignorance, even as he wondered whether whatever Bill had on Harcourt – obtained from the trade union – would add anything to the obituary his brother Alan had sent him.

Like a bolt being shot, Bill suddenly thought of Dacre Lawrence, who he’d first heard of just an hour or so ago. He looked at Harry.
“John Lawrence is Dacre’s father, isn’t he?” he said, straight out.
“Yes”. Harry’s response was deliberately terse.
“So, if Colleen was the child of Lillian and John, that would make them half brother and sister?” Bill was trying to work out the significance of this relationship even as he asked the question.

Harry pulled him back. “It’s still an ‘if’, Bill. That’s what we’re down here to determine.”
“OK.. so why exactly were you in Madrid?”
“I was following up the bond,” Harry replied, matter-of-factly.

Bill considered Harry’s response. He wasn’t stupid. “This bond…” he said, “…it’s linked to Laurel McFry’s shares, isn’t it?” He remembered their discussion over the phone just a few days earlier – “It’s a big story” Harry had said.
All Harry could think of was keeping his promise to Laurel. It was like she’d won the lottery and checked the ‘no publicity’ box – and he was in charge of public relations for the lottery company.

“You can’t print anything about Laurel McFry, Bill,” he replied. “She’s a very private woman. She doesn’t want her name splashed all over Birkenhead. At least not in the terms you’d do it…”
Bill looked shocked, even though he saw how serious his friend was. “You know how I work, Harry…”
“Yes – I think we got a demonstration of that earlier this afternoon, Bill. Or should that be Elliot?”

The question hung for a moment, like a side of well-cured ham in a tapas bar. Bill Blunt was looking at the paving stones that ran between the bungalow and lawn, almost as if he might be making an academic study of the weeds that grew between them.
“Yes … well … sometimes we have to pretend we’re someone we aren’t … it’s not exactly a criminal offence!” he protested. But he continued staring at the ground as he did so.

Harry was relishing Bill’s discomfort. Bill hadn’t broken any laws, but it wouldn’t hurt to make him squirm a little.
“It’s like this, Bill. I’m going to go back in there, and we’re going to explore some delicate issues with a woman who’s 102 years old. Someone who has done more than a few things in her life she isn’t very proud of. And she deserves some dignity through it all.”
“Dignity?”
Harry stubbed out his cigarette, kicking it into the kitchen drain.
“Yes. That means that neither she nor her granddaughter will expect to find their names in this week’s issue of the Birkenhead Beagle. Is that clear?”

Bill nodded. He understood exactly what Harry was saying, alright. The more Harry underlined it, the more he realised his front page scoop would be a powerful one. With little more than three hours to file his story, he was starting to feel anxious about missing key details of Lillian’s story while they were out in the garden.

“Hadn’t we better go back in?” he asked.
“Yes. But remember what I’ve said. No story this week.”

As he followed Bill back into the kitchen, he’d worked out that Bill was still planning to write his piece. It was time for plan ‘B’, he was thinking. And for that, he’d need Laurel’s help.


1 comment:

Stumped said...

"Suddenly, the prospect was real that he might understand this confounded story".
I think I know how Bill feels, TH.