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Henry had to stand there and wait while the blow’s effects worked their way along his nervous system, and when it reached his pain centre the agony was disproportionately huge.
Holding his nose, he waved his free hand. ‘Forget about it.’
The kid retrieved his ball and ran off out of sight.
‘Who the hell was that?’
‘Jack. My nephew. Come on, I think you deserve a beer.’
They walked into the house. Mike called ahead, and an older man came out of the back, wearing a plastic apron with a picture of a French maid’s torso on it. The apron had to stretch over the guy’s beer belly. He stuck out his hand. ‘Ted Dundas. Mike’s father.’ His accent was different to Mike’s, stronger almost to the point of incomprehensibility, with half the consonants missing and every vowel distorted. He was, Mike had told him, an ex-cop.
‘Thanks for inviting me.’
Ted waved a hand. ‘Help yourself to a beer.’ He went back to the kitchen.
Mike followed, and returned with two pewter tankards, unopened cans of beer inside them. It was the cold light ale the Brits called lager.
They wandered through the house. It was minimally furnished, a big colour TV in the living room, a sliding glass door that gave onto a brick patio, walls painted in pastel whites, a lot of brickwork throughout the house.
Henry wondered what to say. ‘Tasteful.’
Mike laughed. ‘You don’t fool me. But thanks for trying.’
They went out through the open patio doors to the small garden. It was east-facing, Henry saw, so it was in the shadow of the house in the evenings; but it had a good view of Arthur’s Seat. Henry took a couple of breaths. The evening air was fresh and cold.
They were close to the western face of the Seat here; the Salisbury Crags loomed a half-mile or so to the east, their rust-brown faces glowing with colour in the low sun.
‘Oh. It’s you.’ A familiar woman’s voice.
It was the sister, Jane, who he had met in that disastrous encounter in her shop. She was wearing a long floral-patterned dress, open at the neck, some kind of wooden clogs, and a hair band. She was standing there holding a glass of wine, the low sun on her face. She wasn’t wearing the peridot necklace, Henry realized with vague, unreasonable disappointment.
Mike stepped forward, grinning. ‘Jane, meet Henry Meacher. My colleague at –’
‘You bastard,’ she said to Mike. ‘You knew.’ She turned on Henry. ‘So did you, in the damn shop. Big joke, guys.’
Henry spread his hands. ‘Believe me, I wasn’t expecting you.’
‘Or you wouldn’t have come. Right?’
‘No. I mean, yes.’ He drained his beer. ‘Mike, could I get another one of those?’
But Jane had turned on Mike. ‘As for you, you little shit –’
Mike’s grin didn’t fade. ‘Hello, Jack.’
Here came the kid, his soccer ball moving at his feet as if stuck there with glue.
‘Kid’s got a good shot on him,’ Henry said drily.
‘You like kids?’
‘I loathe the little assholes.’
Jack laughed, and got himself a glare from Jane.
Mike touched Henry’s shoulder. ‘Keep that up and you’ll have a friend for life.’
Mike’s father stuck his head out the door. ‘Snouts to the trough!’
The five of them sat around a table of some polished wood. It might even have been mahogany. But the setting wasn’t too formal – plates and cutlery that didn’t match, paper napkins, the table scattered with sauces and condiments and wine and beer, and a Diet Coke for the kid. The body language of the adults made it clear the soda was some kind of special treat.
Out of his apron, the father, Ted, revealed a shirt and tie. In the middle of the table Ted put out a steaming bowl of what looked like chili, some kind of minced meat with tomatoes, kidney beans, big chunks of onion; there was a choice of tortilla chips or rice. Henry took the chips, some fresh bread, and a couple of healthy ladle-fuls of the chili. He tried a mouthful; it was hot and sharp.
‘I’m impressed,’ he said.
Jane eyed him. ‘You were expecting haggis and kilts.’
‘No. I didn’t think you British were eating beef.’
‘Not beef,’ the father said through a mouthful of chili. ‘It’s quorn. Meat substitute.’ He slapped his belly. ‘Better for you. I’d generally serve up salad but what with all this radiation you can’t get fresh vegetables for love or money –’
Henry sneezed, suddenly. Then sneezed again.
Ted stared. ‘What’s wrong with him?’
Jane said, ‘Serves him right for walking around Edinburgh in a T-shirt.’
‘I get allergic.’ He looked around. ‘You got a cat?’
‘Yes,’ Ted said. ‘Willis. The little beastie isn’t here right now.’
‘Randy little sod,’ Jane said mildly, eyeing her father. ‘Like his owner.’
‘Don’t speak about your father like that,’ said Ted.
‘Doesn’t matter if the cat’s here or not,’ Henry said. Sneeze. ‘One hair is enough.’ Sneeze. ‘Do you have any anti-histamines?’
Ted eyed him. ‘Do I look as if I have any anti-histamines?’
The boy was staring at him. ‘Do you like cats?’
‘No. I loathe cats.’
‘I thought you loathed kids.’
‘I loathe kids and cats. I’m big on loathing. I have a dog, called Rocky. I had to find him a foster home when –’
‘Are cats little assholes too?’
Jane went into glaring-parent mode, but the father was guffawing, and the moment passed.
‘So,’ Ted said. ‘You like Edinburgh?’
Henry thought over his answer. ‘I guess,’ he said. ‘I’m not a city guy. But it has a comfortable scale. It reminds me of Prague.’
Jane laughed. ‘Prague?’
‘Why not Prague?’
‘Just remember,’ Ted said. ‘Edinburgh is all fur coat and no knickers.’
The kid giggled, and Jane said, ‘For God’s sake, Dad.’
‘Well, it’s true.’
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