Whatever else people said about Harry McFry, no-one ever called him malicious. As Lillian told the story of her time in the north of Spain, Harry had glanced around her assembled guests. He’d seen Colin McAllistair squirming whenever Jonathan Harcourt’s name was mentioned, and remembered the phone call he’d received from the academic. He hadn’t been totally sure, when McAllistair admitted his dealings with Galloway, whether he was on the level. But he could tell contrition when he saw it, and he silently resolved to draw a veil over those parts of the proceedings. It wasn’t essential that everyone knew how Jonathan’s medals had come to be sold, after all.
Maybe Harry had been a little flattered that Colin had recalled meeting him at the Paris conference? He didn’t hanker after a return to academia – he knew that for certain - but he’d felt a certain satisfaction to think that his name hadn’t been completely forgotten in those same circles.
Danny, he had noticed, was concentrating hard on Lillian’s account– he wouldn’t miss any extra fact Lillian revealed, Harry was sure. He saw how his young colleague seemed to blend into the background, sitting on the floor beside the huge aspidistra in the window.
The visitors from Cardiff, meanwhile – well, they were something of an unknown quantity. Harry hadn’t a clue about the NHS Counter Fraud Office, or their powers – he’d never heard of such a body until that afternoon – but Dave and Jane seemed like a competent double act, clearly used to working together. They wouldn’t have powers of arrest, he was sure: they’d probably be assembling evidence that might lead to a prosecution of Dacre Lawrence. They’d already been across to Thirsk, and here they were in Telford, so it was clear they were taking the case seriously. He still suspected Lawrence had been behind the erasure of the McFry census records, and hoped they might be able to confirm that for him, in due course.
Laurel, meanwhile, seemed to have regained her composure a little. As she sat beside him, it wasn’t easy to see her face without making it obvious, but he’d noticed her hands, on her lap, had relaxed. And Lillian had given no hint that she suspected ‘Ana’ was really Laurel.
Bill Blunt was another matter entirely. He’d seen him check his watch, and how he seemed on edge. How had he come to meet Colin McAllistair, he wondered? He seemed to have won the trust of Lillian McFry quite quickly, too – but then again, Harry knew how charming Bill could be, when required. He’d filled more than a few sheets of his notepad with shorthand, and Harry was starting to feel nervous that he might just have secured a rare extension to his paper’s deadline.
Then there was the little matter of the absent guest: Cyril Galloway. Lillian had been expecting him, she’d made that much clear, but still he hadn’t shown up. Harry half expected the doorbell to ring, and tried to imagine what the auctioneer would think when he walked into the room to find so many strange faces.
Harry made himself a mental checklist. They needed to know about Lillian’s escape to France, and how Stuart McFry figured in the story. Laurel, he was sure, would want to hear from Lillian how – and why – she’d abandoned her baby daughter in France. More pragmatically, Harry himself needed to know, for certain, whether Bill Blunt was still expecting to get his story into print in this week’s Beagle. And he wanted to know what else Dave Morris knew about Dacre Lawrence’s activities. He’d start with Bill, he determined. If he could get him alone, he could leave it to Danny to check Lillian’s account for any new details. The first step was to prompt Lillian a little.
“Tell us about your escape from Spain, if you would,” he said, turning to Lillian. “I am sure that’s the kind of drama they’ll love for the documentary.”
Lillian smiled, but Harry couldn’t be sure whether she’d realised how he was leading her where he wanted her, or whether she was warming to the idea of appearing on television. Before she could begin, though, he stood up.
“And while you’re doing that, perhaps we can arrange for some more tea. Elliot?” he asked, turning to a surprised Bill Blunt. “Give me a hand with clearing these cups, and I’ll sort us all out with a fresh pot.”
Bill dropped his notepad on the floor and dutifully began collecting together the empty teacups on the tray he’d left on its side by his chair. As he followed Harry out to the kitchen, Lillian resumed her tale, captivating her remaining audience with her description of how Stuart, Colleen and she had been rescued by the fishing boat off the south-west coast of France. So engrossed were Danny, Laurel and the others, that they hardly heard the gentle rap on the front door to which, thankfully, both Harry and Bill were more alert. Pausing from filling the washing-up bowl with cups and saucers, Harry exchanged the sort of glance with his friend that might say ‘Is this who we think it is?’
Harry was nearest the passageway, so made his way automatically towards the front door, feeling himself tense up as he did so. He had an image in his head of what Cyril Galloway would look like, and as he opened the door he expected to find someone in his sixties, perhaps balding, maybe wearing a suit that had seen better days. He wasn’t wrong.
“Hello,” the visitor said. “Is Lillian alright?” He was holding a small potted plant in front of him.
It was a strange sort of thing for Galloway to say, Harry thought.
“Yes, she’s fine,” he replied. “She’s expecting you.”
The man looked at him quizzically. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m a neighbour. My wife and I, well, we saw all the cars and were just hoping that Lillian was alright. I mean – you know, at her age and everything…”
Harry smiled, and reached out for the plant. “Thank you,” he said. “Everything’s fine. I’m sure Lillian will appreciate that. I’d ask you in, but I’m afraid it’s a little crowded in here just now.” And he asked the stranger his name, so he could tell Lillian. As he closed the door behind him, he couldn’t help wonder what was keeping Mr Galloway.