by Trevor Hopkins

Mister Dalgrin Balloch appeared to be one who made a habit of over-indulgence: there was more than a faint suggestion that he would have been the Billy Bunter schoolboy who had, in fact, eaten all the pies. He had small piggy eyes, with the sclera noticeably tinged blood-red, separated by a bulbous note with a patchwork of veins visible even at my distance. The rolls of fat around his neck seemed to make it difficult to bend his head, and he leaned forward over his plate which further enhanced the porcine appearance.

But he was exceptionally well dressed in a sober and expensive dark suit, crisply ironed shirt and a silk tie in wildly unconstrained shades of pink and yellow. Not my taste at all, but he certainly hade money to throw around. His tailor, shirt-maker and cobbler must all have been handsomely compensated for their considerable efforts at accommodating and disguising his bulk.

My covert scrutiny of the big guy at the next table was interrupted by the quiet approach of a youthful and rather nervous-looking member of the waiting staff.

"Ready to order, sir?" he asked diffidently, flourishing a notepad.

I nodded, smiling thinly, and picked the very cheapest item on the menu that I could quickly identify. Even so, it was eye-wateringly expensive by the standards of almost everybody, to the point where I was not entirely sure the price had inadvertently included some additional zeroes. So as not to appear completely cheap, I beckoned the waiter closer and quietly added a large glass of the house wine. I really didn't want to suffer the attentions of the wine waiter, but I was a bit thirsty.

The young waiter made a few deft notes on his pad and scurried off. I really hoped that Strathallan would hold to his agreement not to charge me; if I was to present it as expenses to Tillyfor, she would justifiably be a trifle upset. It seemed I needn't have worried. The waiter returned a minute later, bringing with him a bottle in a wine cooler which he placed in a corner of the table.

"With the compliments of the Club," he confided softly, so quietly that even a Goblin's sharp ears would not have picked it up from the next table.

I smiled, more warmly this time, and let the youngster go through the usual rigmarole of showing me the label, pulling and inspecting the cork, and the ritual tasting of a splash of fluid in the bottom of a large wineglass. I waved my approval without really thinking about it, allowing the steward to fill my glass, return the bottle to the cooler and hastened away.

Now with nothing to distract me, I swept up my wine glass and took another sip. I don't know very much about wine - it's not my usual tipple - but this example tasted particularly fine. I leaned forward, lifted the bottle from the ice bucket and inspected the label more closely. I wasn't sure, but I was fairly certain that this was a rare vintage. It was certainly very old, as indicated by the date on the front. It must have been lying in some dusty cellar for the best part of fifty years. And now it was being wasted on me.

Carefully not looking in the direction of Balloch, I made quite a show of nodding to myself sagely, between repeatedly tasting the plonk with exceptional care and attention. I set about giving the impression of being one who would happily pay a fortune for an extraordinary bottle of wine, a drink to savour all by himself on a quiet midweek evening, as well as being an old soak who ordered a cheap meal just so that he had something to toy with on the table.

Part 12 Part 14