The Starfield Club was alive with coloured lights and music and raucous voices when I arrived. I had no trouble with the bouncers on the door, although I was not sure whether they were so named for their ability to act as giant beach-balls; under their tuxedos and darkened glasses, they were so corpulent and well-padded that they were practically spherical.
Tipping my hat politely to the nearest of the oversized doormen, I slipped inside, investing in the entrance fee using a worryingly large fraction of the advance Vale had given me earlier. Electing to retain my hat and coat, rather than trusting to the dubious care of the hat-check goblin, I made my way along the back of the room. It was a cavernous, well, cavern, semicircular in shape, the perimeter lined with efficiently-manned bars and cloakrooms interspersed by murals executed in a mixture of garish colours and mirror tiles. Spotlights were trained on the stage at the end of the room, presently empty save for a bored-looking and tuxedo'd dance band filling the spaces between a thousand conversations with innocuously bland music.
To the right of the stage was an area separated by an ineffectual-looking low balustrade and a small jungle of potted ornamental fungi; a much more effective bouncer stood at the gate. Bouncer and balustrade divided the poor from the - currently - rich, at least, those currently rich enough to play at the Roulette and Blackjack tables for the stakes this joint demanded.
I found an unoccupied table near the back and sat heavily, casually tossing my hat down and pulling the ashtray towards me. I took my cigarettes from my pocket - why do the packets always get crumpled like that? - and lit one with a match torn from the matchbook the management had provided. I read the cover idly. "Sophisticated Entertainment in Stylish Surroundings. The Starfield Club." I snorted, then stuffed both cigarettes and matches back into my pocket.
I was still not sure I would be able to recognise Clunie. The photographs that Vale had shown me had carefully obscured her face and I doubted that, even here, her other notable features would be on immediate display. I sat back and blew out a cloud of smoke, and glanced around at the other club patrons at their pleasures. There was a group of giggling females at one table, wearing skimpy sparkly outfits and party hats. Hen parties, I grunted, trouble for someone waiting to happen. At a table beyond, another group - this one all male - ignored the glances of the ladies off the leash for the night, and spent their time looking around suspiciously and nursing bottled beers and club sodas. Someone's private army, I concluded, and not locals - they looked too nervous to be the Club's enforcers.
The actual "Management Team", if you will pardon the euphemism, was fairly easy to spot. Not the uniformed bouncers, of course - they were just there for show. Here and there, around the room, leaning casually on a bar or pillar, hard-faced individuals in well-tailored suits - with extra space under the armpits - were too obviously watching the room and the punters. They didn't seem to be paying me any attention. I wanted to keep it that way.
Another solitary female, obviously a bored working girl, looked sullenly at the hen party and twirled a glass of transparent liquid which was more likely than not pure iced water. My assessment was confirmed - as if it really needed to be - by the appearance of a well-dressed male in a pin-striped suit clutching an over-sized cigar and a large glass of iced whiskey. At his approach, she turned to him, her face brightening with a professionally welcoming smile on her lips, one which did not quite extend to her eyes.
"Hi," a bright voice said behind me, "What'll you have to drink?"
I turned instinctively, coming face to - well, waist, more or less - with an attractive female goblin, young - probably not yet even fifty - and with curves in all the right places.
"Bourbon and branchwater," I replied, my mouth on automatic pilot.
My eyes, also on automatic - evidently much to the amusement of the waitress - roved over her short skirt and plunging cleavage. She seemed somehow familiar, although I could not place her face. My eyes finally came to rest on a tiny badge pinned to the flimsy material covering one of her more-than-ample breasts. "Hi, I'm Clunie," it read. Problem solved, I thought. New problem, more likely.
"Say, why don't you fix me that drink then rest yourself here for a moment?" I asked, pulling a twenty from my pocket and holding it flat against the table, "Take the weight off your feet, have a drink yourself, that style of thing?"
She looked at me sharply for a moment, her head cocked to one side, then bent forward to sweep up the bill.
"I shouldn't really," she breathed in my ear, "The management, they don't like it. But for you maybe I'll make an exception."
She winked at me, then moved off in the direction of the nearest bar. I watched her swaying ass for a few moments, then dragged my attention back to my cigarette. It had nearly burned down to my fingers. I stubbed it out and lit a replacement. No wonder Vale had trouble keeping his hands to himself.
Clunie came back a few minutes later, two drinks balanced professionally on a tiny circular tray that left just enough room for a bowl of bar snacks. She distributed the goods deftly, then sat down across the table, crossing her legs in a way which was at once both prim and provocative. She toyed with her tall drink, which looked as clear and pure as water, although the smell suggested that just a teeny measure of vodka had been slipped in. She didn't drink. I sipped the bourbon - not bad, they weren't skimping on the booze here, at least.
"So, mister," she said, leaning forward, "Haven't seen you around before. You here for the show, or the tables?"
"The show," I said, eyeing her levelly, "Although I've seen an amazing sight or two on the floor already."
"I'd noticed," she giggled, "Are you always this obvious?"
"Maybe," I said, "Actually, I was looking for you, specifically."
"So you found me, baby."
I stared at her. She looked confused. I guessed I wouldn't have been the first sucker to sit all night buying expensive drinks just to catch a glimpse of her breasts.
"I wanted to talk about Vale," I said.
Her face fell, suddenly looking sad and serious and somehow even more alluring. She sat up straight on the chair, knees primly together, reached for her glass and put down about half of it in a lump.
"I miss Merton," she said simply, "What's happened to him?"