They had arrived. The chauffeur parked the limousine by the kerb, exited from behind the steering wheel, and opened the door for his passenger.
“Looks like a fine old mausoleum, the Palladium Club,” Seaton said to the chauffeur, climbing out and looking up at the imposing Neoclassical façade.
“Not a member then, sir?” the chauffeur asked.
“No, it’s my first visit,” Seaton replied. “I have reciprocal privileges through my club in Sydney, the Elysium Club. I asked our Secretary there to suggest a place in London where I could enjoy similar amenities, and he recommended the Palladium. So here I am.”
“Amenities—at the Palladium Club, sir?” the driver said, pulling Seaton’s luggage out of the boot. He looked amused. “They say the Palladium isn’t a club at all—it’s the only funeral parlour in Mayfair.”
“Here, I’ll take that one,” Seaton said, reaching for the smaller of the two cases.
The one that contained the take-down sniper rifle.
To describe the staid and saturnine Palladium Club as a funeral parlour was an exaggeration. But to describe it simply as an old and respectable private gentlemen’s retreat was an outright euphemism. That the Club was old was no overstatement, it having been chartered in early Victorian times; that it was respectable and private was as scrupulously accurate, it having from its inception set a formidably high bar for membership; and that it was a retreat from the clamorous discord of London life was a perfectly apt observation, as silence and discretion were enforced there by an immutable code.
How “old and respectable retreat” failed was that it lacked due magnitude. The Palladium Club was as obsessed by its antiquated traditions as a miser by his money.
Respectability was a cult, privacy a fetish, sanctuary an obsession. Taciturnity was a virtue there, garrulity a vice. The barest hint of controversy was akin to a capital crime.
The tiny elevator cage required an operator to run it. Keys to the rooms were the old-fashioned bitted kind with cylindrical shafts, with the room numbers engraved on brass tags dangling on rings through each bow.
Mobile telephones were not permitted in the Common Rooms, nor were laptop computers or electronic tablets. The Club did not offer Wi-Fi.
It hadn’t installed a telephone in the building until the 1930s, and then only at the reception desk, a restriction that still held. Correspondence was handled solely through the Royal Mail. There were no televisions or radios.
Registration was recorded on index cards kept in a file drawer. The Club did not even accept credit cards—payment was exclusively by cash or cheque.
There were no surveillance cameras anywhere.
In fine, the Palladium was the perfect provisional lodging for a man wishing to leave no trace.
The Conference Room, then in use by the Club’s Board of Governors for their monthly meeting, was windowless, as if to shut out the whole bright world and its distractions. It was panelled in dark wood and lit by a single muted crystal chandelier, a dozen wall sconces imitating the ancient gaslights they had replaced, and brass banker’s desk lamps at every leather-upholstered chair along the long cherry-black table.
Each of these chairs was at the moment occupied. The President of the Board of Governors, Col. Chudleigh, now approaching his eightieth year, sat at the head. The young (being in his callow fifties) Club Manager, Mr. Marks, sat at the foot, a closed document portfolio on the table in front of him. The other seats were occupied by the Governors according to rank.
The meeting, conducted in customarily low voices, had so far dealt with such mundane matters as reviewing the Club’s streams of income, the refurbishment of the hardwood floor in the bar, some considerations regarding whether it was too soon to clean the carpets and rugs, and an inconclusive and delicate debate on whether to upgrade the building’s antiquated fire protection system, itself still considered by many members as a bothersome novelty, fire code be damned. The meeting now approached its customarily tranquil adjournment.
“Is there any other business?” the President asked.
“If I may, Mr. President,” Marks said, “I have a Letter of Introduction from the Elysium Club in Sydney, with whom we enjoy reciprocation of member benefits, on behalf of one of their members, a Mr. Albert Seaton. He is expected today, and has reserved a room for six nights.”