Joe Malone and Vanessa Bixby are at the Reform Club. Vanessa has just pointed out Sir Alan Stuart, a spin doctor for Tony Blair, one of the two guests at the table.
He was one of the very last people on earth I wanted to be involved with in any way.
A.S. in Bixby’s diary. Alan Stuart.
Was P.M., the other initials in the diary, the actual UK Prime Minister? I thought to myself. I’m not sure I was ready to meet The Honourable Sayeeda Warsi just now.
“Cheer up Joe,” sang Vanessa, brightly. “It could be worse.”
“Could it?” I inquired. “Worse than Sir Alan Stuart. Enforcer to the rich and powerful?”
“Yes,” she said. “It could. And ..” she added, taking a sip of her wine,.. “..It actually is.” And she motioned towards Stuart’s table.
Sir Alan’s table partner had just turned around to call a waiter. I recognised him at once. The sharp, yet quite glum, features. Fixed, threatening, yet with a quite forlorn expression. He was flashing his well known warm, charming, but ruthless smile to the waiter, as he ordered something.
If Sir Alan was one of the very last people I wanted to meet, here was the actual last person.
Peter Mandelson. The Dark Lord Himself.
Ch 17 – Meet and Greet
Vanessa moved her firm behind off the table edge and glided across to the bar. I picked up her micro purse, which I suppose I was supposed to do, and went across to join her. I sat on the stool facing the bar. She was turned around, facing the Coffee Room. Looking at the two men waiting for their guests to arrive.
“Do you know Peter Mandelson?” Lady Bixby asked me, mischievously. Taking a pull on her vape. “Is he also one of your skittles buddies?” And she laughed.
Funny lady. I’d cracked wise when she had first come to see me at my office about her husband. This was her digging me back.
“No, I don’t, know him,” I told her, turning to look over my shoulder to study the former special adviser to the Reign of Terror. He was engaged with ordering something. Even from this distance he looked charming and menacing.
I turned back to Vanessa and murmured to her, “So not only are we in the very Heart of Darkness, The Reform Club. We are here to meet with the actual Prince of Darkness, as well?”
“Seems so,” she said, and laughed again. She was enjoying herself.
I’m glad someone was.
“Do you know him?” I asked her.
“Peter? I’ve met him once or twice, with Bixby.” She sat back a little on her stool. Unfolding her crossed legs.” I’m not sure he’d remember me, though.”
“I think he might,” I said, looking along her legs to the top of the black hem at her mid thigh.
She noticed my gaze and pulled her dress down a nono-fraction, and said to me directly “I rather think Peter plays for the away team.”
Which was a known fact. Whether Sir Alan Stuart was also an away goalie, I didn’t know.
“Do you know the other man?” I asked her.
“I know who he is. Sir Alan. We’ve never met.”
“Well then. Let’s go and introduce ourselves.”
“Who are you going to be now? Vicktor Maitland. still? I need some preparation if you want to mix it up convincingly with those two. What does Victor Maitland do?”
“I told you, he owns an art gallery”
“You! You think you can pass for someone who owns an art gallery? With Peter? He knoes all about fine art.” She laughed out loud again at the thought. I fear her opinion of me as a gallery owner was not high.
“Where is this art gallery?” she asked me.
“It’s in L.A. In Beverley Hills”
And she laughed even harder. Which was even more confidence denting.
“Come on,” I said, and stood up. She picked up her tiny bad And we left the bar and walked across to the dining area.
To go parley with the Devil.
* * *
“Vanessa! Dear, dear girl! How wonderful you look. Radiant! Radiant! Doesn’t she Alan? Looks absolutely stunning!”
The Dark Lord, Prince of Darkness, Peter the Great, rose from his chair at our approach, and embraced Vanessa Bixby warmly.
“You’ve changed you hair,” he said to her excitedly. “You had some low-light fireoak tints at the sides…..Just up here.”
He held his hands up to the sides of her brow. Fluttering them like a stylist.
So much for her ‘He might not remember me.” He could remember her hair colouring. The actual shade and style. The Demon Lord demonstrating his infernal powers. Most men couldn’t say for certain what colour their own wife’s eye colour was.
“This is Alan,” Peter continued, indicating Sir Alan Stuart with an outstretched arm.
“I don’t believe you know him. He’s one of the media consulting people. Top media consulting person, I should say. He’s helping Marmon with the European end of things. Do sit down, ‘Nessa, do. Would you like another drink?’
“I’m fine for the moment, thank you, Peter. This is my good friend,” she nodded to me. Opening her mouth to introduce me, I could see her mentally preparing to call me Victor Maitland.
So I squashed that. Just to show that I too have infernal powers. They are are just a lot more immature than Mandelson’s.
“Nichols,” I said. “I’m Doctor Charles Nichols.”
And I saw her eyes briefly flash with surprise, and slight annoyance. She turned her open lips into a smile.
Just messing with you Vanessa. Because it was fun. From the corner of my eye I saw her taking a deep breath and mentally trying to remember my new name.
“Pleased to meet you, Charles,” Peter said with only a slight hesitation. Taking my hand and shaking it surprisingly firmly for such a languid looking man. “Let’s do sit down, shall we?” and he sat at the table and we followed his lead.
“Now, we have already ordered some appetisers. Potted shrimps and toast. Alan was starving. Famished he said, weren’t you, Alan! It’s been a long day. Would you like us to order you something? I already ordered some wine. I got a bottle of each. This one is done, I’m afraid,” he said holding up an empty. “But I’ve ordered some more drinkies. Enough for us all to be getting along with.”
“We are fine,” Vanessa answered him.
I’d read somewhere that he was supposed to be tee-total. That didn’t appear true. The trouble with him is he put out a lot of things himself. Just to sow general confusion.
And so that eventually, he could plausibly claim anything he liked as true. And you’d remember hearing it before, and believe him. It was a skill.
There was a pause while we settled. Then Mandelson asked, “Marmon not with you then?”
“No,” she replied.
“We thought he might have been with you,” I added. Watching for a reaction. Both of them looked doubtful. As if that was unlikely.
“No. We had arranged to meet you both here. He never mentioned anything about Dr Nichols, though,” said the former SPAD, slightly suspiciously, eyeing me from behind his hooded lids. Then quickly switched on his charm again.
“Though the more the merrier, I always say. And you are so welcome to join us, Doctor Nichols.”
Thank you,” I said. “Perhaps he will arrive shortly.”
“I’m sure he will. You know Bixby,” he said. As if Bixby and I were best buds.
Alan Stuart leaned across and nodding towards Vanessa asked me, “Are you in media too, Doctor Nichols? Or charity?” Well aware that most doctors he met were of the Doctor of Spin, rather than medical, kind.
“I was in the pharmaceutical business.”
“Oh yes? Which company?”
“Devlin MacGregor. Of Chicago. Cardiovascular drugs.” This was the limit of my knowledge. I hadn’t watched the film in a long while. So I hope he wasn’t under any treatment. It was rumoured he was on his third heart already. Though it was also rumoured that he wasn’t really ever ill. He just collected new hearts for Peter to eat.
“I have a brother who’s a consultant at Guy’s,” he said delightedly.
Bugger. Switch role time, I decided.
“Excellent. An excellent hospital. Though for myself I have recently moved to be in the charity, slash, media business. I find funding for the Guardian. You know the begging sob story at the bottom of the articles? I do that.”
That should be a big enough bucket of chum to bring him about.
Stuart was Blair’s current spinner. He would know every major journalist in the western world. But he wouldn’t bother with the sales teams. If I posed as someone in part of the media, I could legitimately ask him related questions.
He smiled. “How’s that all going? The funding? Still got a financial black hole?”
“Only one large enough to suck in planets. But we are working on a new pitch. I discovered the number of people willing to spend £300 for a half hour journalism course by Polly Toynbee, or have a play-date with Owen Jones was fewer even than those who bought David Cameron’s ‘Not my fault’ book. Only a fraction of what we had hoped. Now we are pursuing a direct link up. Direct funding from political parties for newspapers and
“That’s not new,” Sir Alan said. His interest already waning on such an old hat idea.
“It is the way I’m planning to do it. Not just a ‘supportive and sympathetic narrative.’
But politicians directly on the boards of the newspapers. Setting the agenda. Total political control. In exchange for cash, of course. Cash and peerages.”
That was naughty. Seeing as how his boss Blair was once spoken to under caution, for just that dodgy business. But Sir Alan seemed intrigued.
“Actual representation? You mean, like maybe a cabinet member actually being on the board of newspapers? A current cabinet member?”
I could see I had said too much and was out of my depth already. I should have stuck with the pharmaceutical cover.
Or being a drug lord art gallery owner.
“I can’t talk about it right now. Not the details,” I said to him. “Its still hush-hush. I can’t tell you who is currently on board with the idea. But I’m sure you would know their names. The necessary parliamentary end has all been squared already.
That’s why Vanessa said I should come along to meet you. Seeing as you are a world expert in media and public relations.”
He lowered his eyes, acknowledging the compliment.
“Oh, she’s really, too, too kind. I am just an occasional player among the people of the media world. But she is sweet to have said so.” And he beamed a smile at her. He must really like her too. His anti-smoking zealotry was well known and he hadn’t said a word about her E-cig. Perhaps he played for the home team after all.
She was talking with Peter and didn’t notice. She looked a little worried. Less sure than I had seen her before. Less confident than she had been just a few moments ago.
Well, the presence of The Devil could do that to anyone, I guess.
“Tell me, how are the current Brexit impasse talks shaping up? I heard that the old ‘New European’ is going to be taken out of cold storage and resurrected? With your old predecessor?”
Brexit was the common language. Like the weather. Everyone had a view. Or, more accurately, it was like football. Those that were not interested had no view on it at all except bafflement and tedium. And those that were could bore on about it, in ever greater detail, in ever more fanatical language, forever. Alan was very interested in it.
I gave him my full attention face whilst I was really listening to Mandelson and Lady Bixby.
“So..everything well?” Peter was asking her.
“Everything is fine.”
“Good..good..” And then they chatted on about an article in her magazine on the decline of Italy as a holiday destination since the rise of populism there. Nothing was forthcoming from anyone. And we all talked on for a while. Mandelson made a show of looking at his watch every now and then. Waiting for Godot.
“I think we should see what happened to those drinks, “Mandelson said, looking for a waiter.
“Do you think you should contact Marmon, Vanessa? See if he is held up somewhere?”
“I will call him in a second. Oh, and sorry I was late. I was delayed by a visitor,”
Lady Bixby informed Mandelson.
“Oh. Anyone I know?”
“Possibly. His name was Flittock.”
“No. I don’t think I do know him. What did he want?”
This seemed to be an opportune moment. So I took it.
“He wanted to know where Lord Bixby had got to,” I told them both. “He was a police officer. Lady Bixby has reported Lord Bixby as a missing person.”
Both Stuart and Mandelson looked very surprised at this news. But they were both seasoned actors and had ‘bold and convincing liar’ in the skills lists of their CVs.
“I’m not actually Doctor Nichols,” I informed them. “I’m a Private Investigator. Billy Rosewood. Formerly of Police Scotland, Social Media and Thought Crimes. On secondment to the LAPD cyberblock department, Beverley Hills. Lady Bixby has hired me to discover the current whereabouts of her husband.”
There was now a silence from everyone. Even the room seemed to go quiet. As the saloon does when the gunslinger enters through the swing doors.
Still no one said anything. Not even Vanessa who was looking down at her hands in her lap. Peter and Alan still looked shocked.
Sir Alan also looked a little sad to discover that there wasn’t to be any new government-newspaper partnership of spin. He had been looking forward to that.
Then the waiter arrived and announced, “Your drinks, sir. A Pontcin and the Montrose Red..”
The waiter’s smile faltered a little as no one looked at him. Or seemed to want to taste his carefully chosen vintages. Sir Alan looked up at the man, but didn’t seem to register what he was supposed to say to him.
So finally I stood up. Lifted the tray from the waiter’s hands and set it on our table.
“Thanks, Pal,” I said to him. “You arrived just in time. Seems my companions are suddenly in need of a stiff, drink.”
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file