by Trevor Hopkins

At first impression, the Stuffed Duck certainly seemed to live up to the reputation I had gleaned from the heavyweight Sunday newspapers. Quite evidently, it was another place where the great and the good of our world - or at least the rich and powerful - would congregate on a regular basis, to exchange news and gossip, to rehearse political agendas and commercial propositions, and generally to persuade People Like Us to align behind the really important theme of keeping the PLUs rich and powerful.

The reception desk was being manned by a rotating group of at least three uniformed flunkies, all kept busy enough welcoming the stream of guests arriving at the door. Actually, desk is the wrong word: it was a slab of polished granite at least forty feet long, supported by a vast number of columns and capitals worthy of a temple to a minor demi-god.

To nobody's surprise, Balloch was immediately acknowledged as having a reservation and ushered with his Very Important Guest - that is, me - to a table set for two. Which was all a bit strange since, with the aid of an old skill known as Reading Upside-Down, I could see that the space in the reservations book indicated by a fingernail was entirely blank. Of course, this curious discrepancy might just have had something to do with the small wedge of folding cash which had momentarily appeared in Balloch's hand, and equally mysteriously disappeared into the receptionist's pocket.

With a flourish, the flunky escorting us produced a couple of thick leather-bound books which could have been expropriated from some ancient library, but turned out to be the menu and wine list. With a curt nod to Balloch, and a longer and much more curious glance at me, the waiter spun on his heel and returned to the demi-god's shrine without a backward glance.

I set the heavy tomes on the edge of the table and took the time to have a good look around under the disguise of fumbling with the cleverly-folded napkin.

It was a huge space, set with some vast number of tables large and small, just a little bit too close together. The tables themselves were monuments in white linen, silver cutlery and polished glass, but the central floral decoration on each one was just a little bit dull and entirely uniform. No flair, no originality. Compared with the ageless and understated elegance and effortless sophistication of Rourke’s, this place was loud and brash. It was if somebody had thrown a lot of time and money at trying to replicate the patina and charm of the old Members' club, but without really understanding what it was that made it so special.

Not that this ersatz charisma had prevented the place from being popular, even very popular. The majority of the tables were already occupied, even at this fairly early lunch hour, by large and small groups of well-dressed professional Goblins - females as well as males - the kind who could have been something in big business, cultural affairs, government, politics. The kind who might aspire to membership at Rourke's, but hadn't yet acquired enough influence, or other people's money, to make that possible.

"You like the place?" Balloch asked warily, having been watching me closely as I glanced around.

(more coming soon)

Part 24 Part 26