Joe Malone, searching for clues to the disappearance of Lord Bixby, has just arrived with Bixby’s wife, Lady Vanessa, at the Reform Club in Pall Mall.
We got out of her car. She motioned her wristwatch to the parking sensor that flashed “FULL CREDIT” back to her and she walked to the imposing entrance to the building. She ascended the steps and I followed her up to the doors of the Reform Club.
The EU’s unofficial embassy in London.
Private Club to The rich. The powerful. The academics. The media owners.
The clergy The politicians and their advisers and spinners.
Plus the civil service of course.
The real power in the land.
The Remain Club
Heart of Darkness.
Ch 15 – The Glorious Reformation
Inside the grand entrance hall our coats were taken by uniformed staff. No automation here in the old school club.
Usually, wherever you went, you left your coat on a hanger, punched a number and off it whisked. Leaving you with a bar code and a bill. When you wanted it back you scanned the barcode, paid, and some random item appeared. It was like the lottery. I’d got a very decent dark overcoat in exchange for a crappy bomber jacket one time, at The Ambassadors.
When Lady Bixby had said said she wanted to assist me with my investigations, when she first came to my office, this is what she had meant. She could help someone like me, i.e. a nobody; get into places like this. Because she was a somebody.
“Lady Bixby. How wonderful to see you,” gushed the Head of House, coming towards us. A short, but very smart, ginger haired man. “Lord Bixby is not here yet. Is he with you?” he asked of Lady Vanessa. “His other guests have only just arrived a short while ago”
He looked over at me and his beaming smile shrank a little.
Hey fellah! I thought. This was my best suit! Maybe it was last year’s style? Or was last year’s colours? Or the Primark Finest label was showing. He didn’t look impressed. I realised that I, as an additional place setting, would be upsetting the reserved table covers.
“No Henshaw,,”she told the small man. “Lord Bixby is not with me,” He was holding an electronic guest book for her to sign, as the law now demanded. “I’m here with a friend,” Vanessa said, nodding in my direction. “This crumpled looking gentleman is …”
“I’m Victor Maitland,” I said, stepping forward and extending my hand to Henshaw. Somewhat surprised he stared at it. Then quickly recovering, he took it. I gripped his hand. Pressing too hard to be just a firm, friendly shake.
“Good to meet you Henshaw,” I said pumping his hand. Giving Vanessa a little time to adjust to the situation.
“A pleasure to meet you too, Mr Maitland,” he said, only slightly showing some discomfort by my deliberately close stance and firm and over friendly pumping of his arm. I had my grin on too. The big one with the weird smile. “The Joker” as it was known in my Department days.
“Shall I sign in Mr Maitland for you, Lady Bixby?” Asked Henshaw. The guest Ebook still in his hand.
Vanessa was scanning the tables and the bar below. Smiling at people and pretending not to hear Henshaw’s request. He turned back from her to me. My face uncomfortably near to his.
“If you could just show your identification, Sir..I..er..uh..” His hand was still in my grip. Still being pumped away. My big, smiley, face just too close for decent, acceptable, English social norms, close. I kept my elbow by my side. Deliberately keeping my arm length short. He couldn’t move away.
“Is that really necessary, Henshaw?” Called over Vanessa. “He is my guest! Victor and Marmon will be dining. And we are so awfully late as it is. How about we do it on the way out, OK?” She beamed a smile at him. A good one. With all her straight, white teeth showing. On the fifty state scale, this was a New York smile.
He looked at her and then back to me. I beamed him a smile too. Only a New Jersey one. Because I don’t have a Beverley Hills dentist.
Lady Bixby looked down the long stairs to the galleried area and gazed over the crowd. She wrinkled her nose in delight and smiled again. Raising a hand to cheek height she gave a cheery wave. As if to a just spotted friend. Very Hillary Clinton like.
“Well..I ..erm..the thing is, Lady Bixby…” Henshaw began, “The regulations now do call for all…”
Lady Bixby interrupted him.“Is Lady Chakribarti here? I have some super news for her.”
“Er..No..I don’t believe she is tonight..” He seemed very disappointed he couldn’t be of service. Then he brightened as he had a thought, “Would you like me to place a call to her?”
“No..No bother. I will catch up with her, I’m sure..Oh look..There’s Sir Adam. We have to go and speak with him, before he leaves, Victor. He’s got a new job, did you know? Director General of the BBC.”
“You don’t say,” I murmured, not turning to look at her. Still pumping the handshake.
Still just a shade too close for his personal space. Still looking straight into the eyes of Henshaw. Still with the weird grin and a slightly odd American accent. Those ignorant Yanks don’t understand polite society conventions.
“Oh yes.!” Vanessa gushed excitedly. “Sir Adam Woodyatt took the role just a few weeks ago. And I haven’t seen him since he accepted. He promised me he’d do a charity feature for my ‘PiP’ charity.”
She gave a little wave over to a group of men in formal attire. A tubby one with a colonel’s moustache turned to his friend to ask who she was. Getting no answer, he shrugged, then raised a glass back to her. She was foxy enough to acknowledge whoever she was.
“PiP charity. You run a charity for pips?” I asked her.
“Don’t be silly Victor. You know perfectly well I’m patron of “Plastic is Poison. Isn’t he a chump, Henshaw?” She said smiling to him again. She opened her miniscule handbag, looked in, then closed it with a snap and said all businesslike,
“Now, do get a move on Victor.”
She was poshing up and agitating her voice a notch.
“Stop gossiping with Henshaw, will you? Please do hurry along. You two chaps can have a good chin-wag later on. We’re so very late as it is. Henshaw, you don’t mind if you and Victor carry on your little chat later, do you, But we are in such a rush.
And Henshaw, would you be a dear and have someone get me some E-cigarettes, Cherry and Salted Caramel if they have them. But any sort will do. I’m completely out. Look, Victor, I don’t have a drink yet. I’m gasping after that awful drive down.
And I really, really do need a pee! So do come along.”
“Sure thing,” I said. Still looking only into the man’s face.
“Nice to meet you, Henshaw.”
I slowly released his hand and stepped away from him. Turned to Vanessa and looped my arm through hers in what I guessed was a gallant gesture and led her off down the very long and steep stone steps towards the main atrium area of the Italianate inspired private members club.
The place was huge. And as grand and opulent and ancient and stuffy as an 1830s era private Gentlemen’s Club should be.
“Oh that was naughty,” she trilled as we settled in large leather armchairs beside a
wooden table by the back wall.
“Henshaw will be spitting feathers about us up there now. All that rudeness! He hates rudeness, you know He’s so very formal. Like Carson in Downton Abbey. Oh, now we’ve upset him. He really will be super livid. He will be so cross with me now. And he really, really likes me!”
“He will, and he doesn’t,” I said to her. “He spits venom about all of you when he’s up there,” I looked and nodded up the grand staircase towards Henshaw’s podium desk. He was already cheerily greeting another club member.
“Each time he sees you, Vanessa, he spits daggers and curses your status. And at night he goes back to his bedsit to plot the overthrow of capitalism and privilege, with his Corbyn-Momentum cell of revolutionaries. I know. I’ve seen his type before. Its in the eyes. The activists zeal for the overthrowing of wealth, privilege and order. Trust me. I was a police inspector.”
“Henshaw doesn’t have a bedsit!” She half laughed to me. “He has rooms in this very Club. He’s been here forever! And he is not a Corbynite. He has shares in an awful lot of blue chip companies. He gets share tips and trading advice from everyone here.
Everybody wants to keep in with him. For reservations, best tables and the good valet service.”
“Okay,” I admitted, turning back to the beautiful lady Bixby. “So I was an Inspector. I just wasn’t a very good one.”
“That much now seems obvious,” She said archly. “I really do need a pee though. Are you coming?”
It is impossible for women to arrive anywhere without immediately heading for the powder room. And as all toilets are gender neutral these days, we go with them.
It was a luxury wood panelled room. Bottles of finest liquid soaps, perfume fragrance atomisers and fresh hot hand towels. Vanessa went into a stall. I took the unisex urinal. There was only one other old gent using it. He was spraying in a lot of directions as he appeared to be falling asleep as he urinated. I finished up and went to use the sink and soaps.
Amazingly, there were two women using the big mirror over the basins that I knew.
A blonde in a blue striped dress and a dark haired girl in a gold one, were chatting away and fixing hair and eyes and lips. And, I noticed, also their clothing.
I walked over and stood beside them Washing my hands with a turquoise bottle whose label read “Molten Brown Financier Infusion.”
“Casey.” I looked into the face of the blonde, reflected in the mirror. Then I moved my gaze to the dark haired lady.
“Alina.” I said to her.
They stopped talking and repairing and looked back at my reflection in the mirror.
They both squinted a little to focus. They’d drunk a fair bit, I guessed.
“Hello…” Casey paused..trying to think. “Hello…Joe!” She exclaimed. Successfully dragging my name from the depths of her memory.
“Joe. Wow. Look at you tonight. You are all dressed up.” She exclaimed, noticing my best suit.
“You getting married or something?” Alina asked me.
“Maybe he’s going to court!” Casey blurted. “You in trouble with the law, Joe?” And they both laughed too loudly.
I smiled. “Where’s Luiza?” I asked them. “Night off?”
Luiza and Casey and Alina were hookers who always worked together. For safety.
And for extra profit. And because they were all lovers.
I had no idea they were now high class enough to get in here. I’d known them back in my Department days when they were all witnesses in a well known hotel chain case, who had got themselves into serious trouble about baking a gay cake for a high profile musician’s wedding reception.
Not because they’d refused to bake a cake with a ‘happy homosexual wedding day’ message on it. But because they’d inexplicably used real sugar in making it.
The girls were screwing the catering and hospitality managers in exchange for guest access. That’s why The Department took the case over from Vice. Who were really annoyed about that. But sugar abuse was way more a serious crime than prostitution and bribery. These ladies had turned up on a few other cases I’d had some passing involvement in too. Their threesome antics were novel enough that I had remembered them.
“Night off for Luiza?” I asked again. Neither answered right off. Wary. Knowing who I was.
There was the sound of the auto-flush, a bolt unlocking and Vanessa emerged from her stall and came over to us and washed her hands. She too looked in the mirror, flicking her fringe with her fingers and wetting her lips.
She glanced at the two women, who stared back at her, unphased. They often had to cold stare other women off their patch and out of their way. Vanessa Bixby, who was never phased herself, decided to signal her female ownership of territory by saying “You coming, Joe?” Then walking out.
“Relax ladies, “I said to Casey and Alina. “I’m here on a social.”
“You with her?” Alina asked me. “She looks expensive. How can you afford her on your wages, eh, Joe?”
I took a hot towel, as thick and fluffy as a sheepskin rug, and dried my hands, and turned to go.
“Say Hi to Luiza for me, won’t you.”
“Say Hi to her yourself,” Casey answered me. “She’s round the corner with the Minister for Communities. She won’t be long. He’s a fast emptier.”
She was trying to get the strap of her dress to stay up on her shoulder, but it kept slipping down. The dresses zip had broken at the top.
I walked to the ‘L’ shape angle of the room and peered around the corner. Sure enough Luiza was there at the far end. Helping the Minister get to know one of his Romanian constituents from the community.
I decided this wasn’t the best time for a ‘Hi’ and walked to the exit, calling a “Be good, ladies,” to the other two girls.
“We are always good Joe. That’s our guarantee,” said Alina.
“Its the Mission Statement on our webpage.” added Casey. And they both laughed again.
I left them and went back to the main club area. Spotting Vanessa at the bar, an empty cocktail glass in her hand. She sure was a drinker. I wondered if she’d be OK to drive? Though doubtless her car had auto-drive. Or she could stay here. The Bixby’s would be on the list for room availability.
I thought to myself that this Reform Club was a lot more fun than I could have ever imagined it would be.
I made my way over to her, to prepare for what we had come here for.
To see just who it was Lord Bixby was supposed to be meeting here tonight. And why.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file