Henry Charles Wevill, otherwise known as Lord Wevill off Framlingham, regarded his visitor with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. At the same time, he tried not to give anything away. Of course, he had met the type before. In his years as chairman of ZFG, one of the world’s largest private banks, he could recognise wealth the moment it walked into the room. There were the rich, the stinking rich and in a class of their own, the impossibly wealthy. It had been obvious from the start that his visitor belonged to this last category. And yet there was something rather strange about Mr Stevros, which was the name on the white business card that lay on the surface of the desk between them. Wasn’t Stevros the villain in Dr Who? Or was that Stavros? He was either Greek or Russian, or possibly a mix of the two, a small man with dark skin, black hair that might been dyed and moist, slightly nervous eyes. His suit was impeccable, made-to-measure for sure. He had no fewer than three rings on one hand and two on the other, all solid gold and, from the way they glittered, quite possibly brand new. His shoes were brilliantly polished. His teeth were an unnatural white.
He had entered the room with a briefcase in one hand and a large, circular package, covered with a cloth, in the other. He had set this on the floor, apologising that he had been doing his Christmas shopping just before he had come to this appointment. His chauffeur had been taken ill and he hadn’t had time to get a cab home.
Stevros had been recommended to Henry by a mutual acquaintance at the Garrick Club and they had met at his office at the House of Lords. There was nothing like 400 years of history to give a man gravitas and although the office was small and cluttered, everything from the wood panelling to the view over Parliament Square somehow elevated whoever sat there.
Lord Wevill himself was an unimpressive man. He had left ZFG under a cloud and his pension hadn’t quite reached the heights he had hoped for. Worse still, a protracted divorce had almost cleaned him out. He was plump and grey with a straggling moustache, a thin spread of hair and a nose that showed too many veins. There was a stain on his tie. He wished he had noticed it when he put it on.
But still he managed to hold his own. Five years at Eton had given him a reasonable education and, more usefully, an air of cultivation that could brush aside on foreigner at five paces.
“This is an unusual request, Mr Stavros,” he announced.
“Yes. Quite.” Henry cleared his throat.
“I would personally be delighted to attend your Christmas party at the Dorchester,” he continued. “But it seems…” He searched for the word. “…unusual that you should also wish to invite so many of my colleagues.”
He glanced at the list that the business man had given him. There were nine names beneath his own, Labour, Liberal and Conservative. There was even one Green. Henry knew them all. Like him, they had been ennobled quite recently.
“The party is of great importance to me.” Stevros was softly spoken. His voice had strange lilt to it, as if he were reciting ancient poetry. “I will be quite honest with you, my lord. I am new here. I do not have many… what is the word? Connections! I wish to show to my colleagues and to my associates that I am well connected in this city. I could go out and find myself any number of celebrities but I prefer to surround myself with people of distinction. The British leaders, the aristocracy.” He paused. “Of course, I would not ask your lordships to lend their attendance without some form of remuneration. Shall we say ten thousand pounds each? Would that be acceptable?”
Ten thousand pounds to spend a few hours at a party in one of London’s best hotels! Ti was more than acceptable. But Henry kept a poker face. “I assume your guested would be reputable…” he muttered.
“Of course. And I can assure you that the meal will be a memorable one. I myself have taken charge of the cuisine. I have devoted the entire month to it. We begin with oeufs en cocotte.” He made a gesture in the air, his thumb and first finger forming an O. “The faverolle hen is known as the best egg-layer in the world and the taste, my lord, is second to none. This will be followed by a course that has been specially prepared for us by Heston Blumenthal himself. Baked swan! It’s a medieval recipe. The swan is boned, then parboiled, then roasted with salt, pepper and ginger…”
Lord Wevill had bristled in his chair. “I believe it is illegal to consume swan in this country,” he muttered.
“It is illegal to kill a swan in the United Kingdom,” his visitor agreed, “as all mute swans are the property of Her Majesty the Queen. However, I understand that Mr Blumenthal was able to import a number of fine specimens from Germany and he assures me that the taste will be exquisite even though, unfortunately, they will have arrived frozen.” Lord Wevill still looked doubtful so he pressed on. “There will be a traditional roast goose as an alternative if it is not to your liking.”
“I think I’d prefer goose,” he said.
“Whatever your lordship requires – and of course there will be a vegetarian option although that’s still in the planning stages. Finally, for dessert… crème brûlée!” It seemed that Mr Stevros was determined to run through the entire menu. He leant forward in confidence. “I have business dealings with the Irish Milk Marketing Board and they are sending a delegation of young attractive girls to serve the dish in traditional Irish dress after which they will entertain us with a few folk songs.”
“It certainly sounds as if you’ve got the whole thing planned,” Lord Wevill said, although secretly he was beginning to think that the party sounded vulgar and even slightly bizarre. He was surprised that the Dorchester had ever agreed to it. At the same time, though, there was the question of the ten thousand pounds. A drop in the ocean, of course. But if it was paid in cash and didn’t have to be registered it might still come in quite handy.
“I haven’t told you about the entertainment”! Mr Stevros said, his eyes lighting up. “I have persuaded the band of the 1st Battaliion of the Scots Guards to perform for my guests as they arrive. As I’m sure you are aware, Lord Wevill, they traditionally play for the Queen at the ‘Trooping of the Colours’. I believe that is what it’s called?”
“Trooping the Colour.”
“Yes. Thank you for correcting me. Many of my guests will be visiting London for the first time. They will be delighted to see for themselves the ceremony which has deservedly made this country the envy of the world.”
There was the sound of cooing from somewhere on the floor and Lord Wevill looked down in alarm. He had forgotten the large package that his guest had left beside the desk.
“Forgive me.” Mr Stevros blushed. “I came to you directly from the pet department at Harrods Department Store. It’s a surprise for my wife…” He lifted the cloth to reveal a golden cage and, inside it, two small, brown birds with black and white patches on the sides of their necks. “Streptopelia tutur,” he muttered in a low voice, as if he were divulging a state secret. “Quite rare – and in beautiful condition.”
“Your wife keeps pets?” Lord Wevill asked. He was almost lost for words, wondering how his visitor had managed to bring the cage and its two occupants through security.
“She has an aviary,” Stevros replied. “Lenka – that is the name of my dear wife - has always had an interest in ornithology and so I built an aviary for her in the garden of our Kensington house. I purchased these for her today along with two breeding pairs of Jamaican blackbirds which they have promised to deliver in time for Christmas. You will see them at the party, my lord, as I intend to put them on display. The Jamaican blackbird is distinguished by the richness of its colour and by a slightly shortened tail…”
“I can’t say I have much interest in birds myself,” Lord Wevill interrupted. He glanced at his watch out of the corner of his eye. It was almost time for lunch. His visitor must have detected the movement. He quickly covered the cage and got down to business. “The party starts at seven o’clock on December 21st,” he said. “Is the date convenient?”
“I believe so.” Lord Wevill opened the diary that lay on his desk being sure not to let his guest see the many empty pages. “Yes, I can come on the 21st,” he said. “But I won’t be able to stay too long.”
“But you must stay for the piece de résistance at the end of the evening,” Mr Stevros insisted.
“After the singing. It has taken a great deal of negotiation and, between you and me, a considerable sum of money. But I have managed to persuade three prima ballerinas from Adventures in Motion Pictures, the dance company founded by Matthew Bourne, to dance for us on a stage which we are constructing even now in the ballroom of the hotel. I am sure you will be acquainted with his Swan Lake. It was quite spectacular. They will be joined by six more artists from the Ballet Rambert and the Bolshoi Ballet. The last of these are flying in especially from Moscow on a private jet which I have chartered for their convenience. They will be performing a series of short pieces with music by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Are you fond of ballet, Lord Wevill?
“I quite enjoy it,” Lord Wevill lied. In fact it bored him stiff and he usually fell asleep long before the first interval.
“Then this will be a rare opportunity to see a coming-together of three of the most highly regarded dance companies in the world. They will be dancing for one night only for your personal pleasure.”
“Well, I suppose I can think about it…” Henry ran his eyes down the names on the sheet of paper which he was still holding in his hands. Each one had been written by hand in capital letters – possibly with a fountain pen. Lord Berryman would certainly come. He never missed a free dinner. And Viscount Tomlinson would get drunk and end up chasing after one of the boys from the Scots Guards if he was playing true to form. Lord Sexton de Bromley might prove tricky. He had a dislike of foreigners but at the same time he had gambling debts and his country pile was falling to bits.
All in all, Henry was fairly sure that he’d be able to persuade the whole lot of them. Maybe he could ask them for a commission on the ten thousand pounds. Ten per cent wouldn’t be unreasonable. And after all, he had been the first one who had been approached.
“I do have to know fairly soon, my lord,” Stevros explained, wringing his hands together in a gesture of apology. “The thing is, you see, we have to be very strict about the numbers. Mr Blumenthal, the Dorchester… they all have to know.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Henry was business-like now. “Suppose I get my secretary to give you a call in a day or two? I can talk to the others this afternoon and tomorrow. I am sure we’d all enjoy a good Christmas party. It is, after all, Christmas. And… ten thousand, you said?”
“Excellent. Most generous of you. I’m sure we’ll all direct it towards a worthy cause.”
“Thank you, Lord Wevill.”
The interview was over. Stevros picked up his briefcase and the birdcage, then remembered that he hadn’t shaken hands. He put the birdcage back down again and leant clumsily over the desk. The two men shook. Then, with a little bow of his head, Stevros left the office and allowed himself to be escorted down the stairs and back out into the street. It had all gone very well. He had achieved exactly what he wanted and now he could relax in the knowledge that his party would be the historic even that he had always planned. In his country, these things mattered. Only last year, his great rival, the oil and property magnate Viktor Gudunov, had thrown an Egyptian-themed fancy dress ball for his 21-year-old daughter on the face of the Great Pyramid. Before that, Dr Winston Yu had entertained a thousand guests on the USS Abraham Lincoln, an American aircraft carrier on duty on the Pacific. But Stevros was confident that his part would outstrip either of those.
Of course it hadn’t been please kowtowing to the failed bank manager who now stat in the House of Lords. But there had been no choice in the matter. Stevros had already collected the 12 drummers, and the 11 pipers of the Scots Guards, the nine ladies dancing and eight maids-a-milking. They would be feasting on the seven swans, the six geese and the three French hens. The two turtle doves were in the cage he was holding and the four calling birds (colly birds, in fact, named after the old word for coal) were on their way from Harrods. He was wearing the five gold rings which he had picked up that morning at Tiffany in Old Bond Street. And now, he was fairly sure, he had the ten lords-a-leaping. He had always thought that the lords in the country would do anything if you paid them enough.
Smiling to himself, Stevros flagged down a cab and head off to Kew Gardens to pick up the partridge in the pear tree.