by Trevor Hopkins

I would hear - to nobody's great surprise - that Clunie wasted no time in installing herself in the Starfield Club. One of the few facts which were incontestable - and one which was endlessly repeated in the newspaper reports - was that a former waitress had suddenly become the proprietor of the Club. From conversations I had overheard in bars across the caverns, it seemed that everyone had heard that the new owner - now styled Madame Clunie Ford - had a dark past: tales of being a floozy, a kept woman, and even darker rumours of involvement in murder and mayhem.

The ranks of the Club regulars were diluted by an influx of newcomers, by all accounts, Goblins anxious to see the places mentioned in lurid reports in their evening papers and, perhaps, to catch a glimpse of the mysterious lady that featured so prominently. I don't suppose more than a small fraction came for a second time, but it is the repeat business that really is the money-spinner for a place like the Starfield Club.

I took it into my head to pay a visit to the Club, early one evening. I made the familiar journey to the front entrance. The bouncer on the door did not recognise me, I'm sure - I was not in disguise, exactly, although I had tugged down the brim of my hat more than usual.

I paid the entrance fee like anybody else and once again declined to deposit my hat with the hat-check Goblin. Inside, nothing seemed different. The band and the torch singer were just the same - why change a winning formula, after all? - belting out the same numbers and wearing, if not the same dress, then at least one cut from the same pattern. All of the tables in the casino area seemed to be working, and the place had a buzz, an alive-ness, which had been absent on my previous visits.

I pushed my way around the back of the room - it was certainly more crowded than on any previous occasion - and sat at the same table - what was it about this particular spot that nobody else ever seemed to sit here? I tossed my hat on the table and looked around. I didn't bother with cigarettes or matches this time.

Everybody seemed to be ignoring me. The local management team - the tough guys in business suits with extra space under the armpits - seemed to have their attention elsewhere. The bouncers stood like oversized tuxedo'd robots by the exits. The working girls plied their trade uninterrupted - no doubt the new Madame was taking a cut there, too.

The waitress didn't recognise me, either. They probably had quite a turnover of staff in this place. But she was much in the mould of most of the other waitresses in the joint: young, buxom enough to fill the tight-fitting uniform with not an inch to spare and a smile permanently fixed below bright but somehow slightly vacant-looking eyes. Clathy had always been something of an exception in this company.

"What'll it be, Mister?" she asked brightly. They all spoke the same, too.

"Bourbon and branchwater."

It's what I always drink in places I don't trust. Too popular a drink to be tampered with. The drink appeared swiftly - the faster drinks arrive, the more is drunk, and the more profit is made. I sat and sipped my whiskey, idly watching the floor show and glancing over the punters.

Ten minutes later, I spotted Clunie approaching through the crowd. She was wearing a long dress made from some rustling black fabric I could not name and fitted with a plethora of sparkling black sequins. The dress covered her from neck to ankle. It must have been quite a challenge to her dressmaker to make it fit so snugly around the swelling curves of her breasts.

I stood up politely at her stately approach.

"Madame Ford," I said, "You're looking well."

She looked at me with calm eyes, eyes that has seen a lot and weren't telling. She seemed completely in control.

"Mister Gask, thank you," she acknowledged, "And welcome - again - to the Starfield Club."

"Thank you, Madame."

She declined my unspoken invitation to sit at the table with a slow shake of her head. We both stood facing each other, the hubbub of the Club somehow fading around us.

"I just want you to know you are always welcome here, as my guest" she said formally, graciously.

There was no sign of the nervous and faintly shy girl who had cried on my shoulder over Merton Vale's death and the disappearance of his briefcase. I wondered if she really ever existed.

"Again, thank you, Madame."

I was under the watchful eyes of several of the rotund bouncers, who seemed to have materialised around me, not close, not obvious, but clearly there to discourage me from doing something stupid. It was too late. It was stupid for me to have come here in the first place. There was nothing at the Starfield Club for me.

Clunie signalled a waitress, who materialised almost instantaneously at her elbow.

"Another drink for Mister Gask, on the house."

The waitress scurried away. Madame Ford nodded politely to me, a salute I returned, then she turned and swept away across the floor, tailed by a couple of the bouncers. I watched her go, then slumped back in the chair and drained my drink.

A few second later, another waitress brought another glass - a large scotch, a very good single malt - and placed it carefully in front of me. I left it there, un-drunk, just on principle. I just tugged my hat back on over my eyes and left the Club.

Part 104 Part 106