The Britannia Club stood on King Street, a respectable limestone facade among respectable limestone facades, with a brass plaque that nobody had looked at in decades; if you had to stop to check the address, you were clearly in the wrong place.
This was St. James. “Clubland.”
The men traversing these streets walked with that air of self-assurance that comes from belonging to a privileged set. In bookish Bloomsbury, the Londoners drifted around the British Museum in the wake of literary romance. In the working-class areas of the East End, such as Limehouse or Whitechapel, they trudged with a grim determination, playing the cards they’d been dealt. South of the Thames, in Battersea, where in 1913 John Archer became the first black man elected as borough mayor, they simmered after a better tomorrow. But in affluent St. James, they simply knew that they were the Empire.
Here, for instance, was Lieutenant Eric Peterkin, late of the Royal Fusiliers. He was buttoned up against the October chill in a double-breasted greatcoat of military cut. His homburg was tilted at just enough of an angle to be rakish without being disreputable. His suit was pressed, his collar was starched, and his gait was brisk. His companion, Avery Ferrett, was more unconventionally dressed in a shapeless overcoat and a beret; and though much taller, Avery had to trot to keep up with Eric.
“It’s the only way to kill someone,” Eric was saying. The good people of London, well bred as they were, pretended not to hear. “Most people would go to pieces if they had to do it up close, with a knife or a bludgeon, or something of the sort.” He nodded sagely. “Guns and poisons, Avery. That’s the way to do it.”
“Well, I think it’s ghastly,” said Avery. “You read too many of these murder mysteries, Eric.”
“It’s what I’m paid to do.” Eric had a job evaluating manuscripts for publication, and lately, most seemed to be about mysterious deaths behind locked doors.
“You don’t have to take such ghoulish enjoyment out of it. Honestly, Eric, I’m surprised at you. After the War, I’d have thought you’d had your fill of death.”
Eric came to a stop. One never quite forgot the War, however one tried. “That’s different. Death in the War was . . . just death, nothing personal about it. But this”—he held up the envelope containing his next assignment—“this is murder. Do you understand? It’s personal. It’s intimate. You know the poor bugger who gets stabbed in the locked room. The killer and the victim were probably friendly once upon a time. And it puts a sort of meaning on death, which makes it manageable, like a puzzle to be solved rather than a thing you just endure. Do you see?” Eric wasn’t sure if he did. Avery had spent the entirety of the War in Buenos Aires for his health.
Avery just shook his head. “I still think it’s an inhuman business whatever the case. You always leave something of your humanity behind in a murder. I could never do it.”
“Something of your humanity . . . well, yes. That’s what makes it personal, and what gives it meaning. You see the murderer’s soul reflected in all the little details surrounding the crime, and that puts a human face on Death. Death becomes a thing you can understand because of . . . of the residue of humanity left behind.”
“No, no. What I mean is, you’re never a whole person again afterwards.” Avery paused and added, “Sometimes I wonder if anyone is a whole person anymore.”
“That’s the price of our present, Avery. The War was a terrible thing, but the great thing is that nothing approaching that scale will ever happen again, because no one wants to go back to the trenches. There’s some sense being made out of all the killing, if you like.”
Indeed, in that year of 1924, the world preferred not to dwell on the past. It looked outside and to the future, and in Eric’s opinion that was not a bad thing at all.
They were now passing the St. James Theatre, with its posters advertising the current play. Eric considered this production a very poor copy of the previous year’s The Green Goddess, but it featured even more exotic fare, with a “menacing Mandarin” villain straight out of a Sax Rohmer novel. No matter how distasteful Eric found this current fashion for Oriental villains, there was no denying that it illustrated his point. They were headed towards a more cosmopolitan world, even if some aspects of the road getting there set his teeth on edge. One looked outwards.
Over at Wembley Park was the ongoing exhibition for the British Empire in all her glory, with pavilions and displays representing every corner of the world where the rule of His Majesty King George V was law. And just a few months ago, the Paris Olympics brought all the world to the French capital just across the Channel. Women were allowed to fence at the Olympics for the first time that year, and Eric had gone to see them. His sister Penny had gone for a glimpse of her personal hero, equestrian Philip Bowden-Smith. And Avery had gone for the French chocolates.
Along with looking outwards, one also looked forwards: simply being alive in the here and now was a cause for celebration. The stodgy Victorian and Georgian architecture found on King Street—the St. James Theatre, the Golden Lion pub, the Britannia Club itself—was giving way elsewhere to the clean, angular lines of Egyptian-inspired art deco and the broad white expanses of modernism. Electric lights were the rule now rather than the exception; they blinked from the marquees of theatres and shone from the windows of houses, lighting up the night the way gas lamps never had. Motor cars had superseded horse-drawn carriages in the streets, changing the very sound and smell of London: for better or for worse, brass horns and chemical exhaust had taken the place of hoofbeats and horse sweat. Hot dance music—what the Americans called “jazz”—had begun to fill the nightclubs, and the advent of the wireless and the newly minted British Broadcasting Company meant it might very well begin to fill the parlours and drawing rooms of average British homes as well.
“Penny for the Guy, sir?”
Eric and Avery looked down as a pair of ragged urchins brought them back to the reality of King Street, London. Oh yes, the fifth of November, Bonfire Night, would be in just another couple of weeks, wouldn’t it? Enterprising young urchins were already plying the streets with wagons and barrows loaded up with artful effigies of Guy Fawkes. This one was stuffed with rags, with a head like a boiled pudding and a long, curling moustache drawn on in ink.
“Now that is what I call a nice Guy,” Eric said, tossing tuppence into the barrow. “And what a fine, villainous moustache he has, too!”
The urchins behind the barrow just stared at him. Avery chuckled. “You’re frightening the young’uns,” he said. He dropped his own penny into the barrow, and the urchins raced off to present their Guy to the next man on the street.
Avery turned to Eric and said, “Your club’s probably got a vastly superior Guy in a vastly superior wagon just waiting in the wings, I’ll wager. All you toffs tossing in sovereigns instead of pennies, I should expect some jolly impressive fireworks.”
It wasn’t the done thing to bring up money in conversation, but Avery never seemed to care. Eric had known him long enough to forgive the odd gaucherie. “We don’t much care for fireworks, actually,” Eric said as they crossed the street to the Britannia Club itself. “Reminds some people too much of the trenches, I think. They’d rather stay home than risk the streets, so the place is always empty on Bonfire Night.”
The Britannia Club had but one requirement for membership, aside from being a gentleman: experience on the battlefield in the service of the Empire. Eric qualified with a year in the trenches, whereas Avery, thanks to his extended Argentinian tour, did not.
“I always wonder what goes on behind those doors,” Avery remarked, gazing up at the neoclassical facade. The oak doors were enormous, and the great brass knockers didn’t look as though they’d ever been lifted. “One of these days, Eric, you will have to bring me in as a guest.”
“It’s just a lot of men sitting around and smoking, Avery. Nothing you don’t see yourself every day at the Arabica.”
The Arabica was a coffee house just off Soho Square where Avery could usually be found, poring over a Tarot spread as a cloud of clove cigarette smoke gathered over his head.
“And yet you maintain your membership,” Avery replied.
“It’s a family tradition,” Eric said, shoulders drawing back as he drew himself up. “Like going into the Army. It’s bad enough that I didn’t make a career of it after I was demobbed. I don’t know what Dad would say if I gave up my membership here as well.”
“I could ask.”
“Don’t you dare. Anyway, it’s . . . convenient.”
“So’s the Arabica, and that doesn’t cost me more than a shilling for coffee.” Avery looked up at the club’s front doors again, then turned to his friend with a sly, playful smile. “I can only conclude that there must be something nefarious afoot.”
“Yes, nefarious! My friend, the villain. Tell me, is there a murder every week, and a dastardly plan to rule the Empire from the shadows?”
Eric laughed. “Get on with you! I’d hardly tell you if that were so!”
Avery let out an exaggerated sigh. “Then I shall leave you to your scheming. Just be sure to give me some kind of warning before you set your plan for world domination in motion, or I shall be quite upset.”
Eric laughed again and waved his friend off. Avery responded with a jaunty tip of his beret, and headed off in the direction of St. James’s Square. Eric watched him go, then trotted up the steps to the club. One door opened just wide enough to let him through, then swung silently shut behind him.
Eric hadn’t been entirely truthful, even to himself, when he said the Britannia was only “convenient” to his purposes. If he had, he might have realised what Avery already knew: Membership in the Britannia Club was more than simply convenient, or even a home away from home. It was the imprimatur of his very identity as a Peterkin.
Eric’s flat was a cosy but cramped corner of London that Avery described as “a claustrophobic little hole.” Eric thought it decent enough, but he wasn’t too fond of solitude, and so he spent most of his waking hours at his club.
Silence closed in all around as soon as the great front door clicked softly shut behind him. The entry vestibule was an austere marble hall, a buffer between the bustle of London and the comfort of the club. One wall was entirely taken up by a roster of men who’d lost their lives in the Great War. Sobering as this reminder was, it was still “the war to end all wars,” and there was at least some comfort in knowing that the opposite wall would never be filled in the same way. Eric took a moment to pick out the Peterkins among them, then proceeded through to the warmth of the walnut-panelled lobby, where sunlight from a skylight two floors above illuminated the marble floor tiles, discreetly patterned and polished to a mirror shine. The silence was barely broken by the clink of silverware coming from the adjacent dining room.
The front desk opposite was a dark polished walnut, like the panelling on the walls. Eric’s heels tapped across the floor as he approached the desk to sign the register.
“Morning, Cully,” he said to the porter stationed behind the front desk.
“Morning, Lieutenant Peterkin, sir.” The porter’s name was Ted Cully, though Eric and the other members generally referred to him as “Old Faithful” behind his back. He was a short, squarely built fellow with twinkling blue eyes who’d recently been persuaded that his age more than warranted the growth of a short salt-and-pepper beard. He addressed most members by both name and rank, the result of a lifelong attachment to all things military. Eric knew that he’d lied about his age to enlist, and that his military career had taken him all over the world, from New Zealand to Africa; but even a lifetime of world travel and regimental spit-and-polish couldn’t iron out the musical Irish lilt from his speech.
Old Faithful was the first person Eric ever met at the Britannia Club. That seemed like almost another time, in another world; Eric had been only a boy of ten, not yet a lieutenant except in his games, here for his first Christmas outside of India and deeply curious about the man with the twinkling blue eyes behind the big walnut desk. Old Faithful had barely changed since then, and it seemed unlikely that he ever would.
The same might be said about the Britannia Club. It didn’t change. The men were gentlemen, the conversation was civilised, the attendants were invisible until you wanted them, and the toast was, unfortunately, burnt. Much like a warm blanket on a winter’s day, this changeless certainty insulated and comforted; it offered an escape from the chaotic hubbub of the London streets.
On the first-floor landing hung a massive oil painting, a pre-Raphaelite depiction of King Arthur’s knights around the Round Table. There had always been Peterkins at the Britannia: one of Eric’s ancestors had been a founding member, and his likeness was immortalised in this painting as a white-whiskered King Pellinore. There were the distinctively heavy Peterkin eyebrows, the only physical feature Eric had inherited from his father. Eric felt more family pride here than he was willing to admit. He always stopped to give old Pellinore-Peterkin a nod of recognition on his way up to the lounge. But his attention was just as often drawn to another figure in the painting: Sir Palomides, King Arthur’s Saracen knight, the one dark, non-European face among the pale Britons who made up the rest of the cohort.
Eric remembered that he’d spent much of that first English Christmas standing here, trying to identify everyone from the legends. Sir Palomides had, of course, been the easiest to recognise. Then as now, Eric felt a special sympathy for him. Alone in a crowd, he mused. Surrounded by the bright pageantry of Camelot, yet still quite on his own. Poor fellow.
And the rest of the knights represented the body of the Britannia’s membership, of course. It was not that the club members were truly perfect paragons of virtue; twenty-six years as an outsider and twelve months in the trenches of Flanders had taught Eric better than to expect that. None of the Arthurian Knights really were, excepting perhaps the impossibly perfect Grail Knights. But each member here had made the choice to put up his life in the service of his country, and that, to Eric, made them noble.
Eric continued into the lounge, where soft carpets muffled his footsteps and blazing fires crackled in the fireplaces. His Usual Armchair was waiting for him, a high-backed affair with wings against which one might lean one’s head for a nap. The fireplace nearby was excellent for toasting one’s toes at when the weather got grim.
Yes, he was far from the muck and cold and death of Flanders.
Elsewhere in the room, armchairs and low tables were organised in a scattering of little groups both discreet and discrete. Tall curtained windows overlooked King Street. And there was the bar, also nearby, just a little battered from that one time fifty years ago when Eric’s grandfather threw the then-reigning club president over it in a brawl.
Eric had ensconced himself in his Usual Armchair almost every day since he’d first got the job evaluating manuscripts for a small publisher. He had more than once been glad of the bar, when he needed to salve his brain with good whisky after a particularly bad manuscript. He rather hoped the new manuscript he had in his hands would want no such solution.
The Case of the Jade Butterfly, he read. Another Far East mystery. His employers seemed to think he was very good with those.
Perhaps, he thought as he glanced at the wall of text on the first page, a pre-emptive measure of whisky and soda would be a very good idea.
Standing at the bar with a tumbler of whisky was Edward Aldershott. The Britannia Club was run by an elected board of five officers, and Aldershott was the stiff-backed, stony-faced club president. Tall, prematurely grey, and with a habit of standing perfectly still, he looked like a bespectacled stone lion. But his stiffly starched collar failed to hide the boil scars of a run-in with mustard gas in the War; he was still flesh and blood, for all he pretended not to be.
Aldershott’s work outside the club revolved around advising others on how best to manage their investments—or how to best let him manage their investments, as the case might be. Most of his clients were members of the club. He often conducted his business from the club president’s office, which explained his presence here on a workday morning.
“Morning, Aldershott,” Eric said politely, sliding up to the bar to place his order.
The granite-grey head didn’t move, but even in the soft lighting of the club lounge, the spectacles glinted like diamond: hard, cold, and unwelcoming. Abruptly, Aldershott swallowed the remainder of his whisky and moved deliberately away to strike up a conversation with a bearded club member at the other end of the bar.
Eric’s lips settled into a hard line, and he ordered his whisky and soda somewhat more brusquely than usual.
There had always been Peterkins at the Britannia, and the Britannia was a non-negotiable fixture in Eric’s life. But there was a reason he’d always felt that kinship with poor old Sir Palomides at the Round Table. This latest slight was hardly an isolated incident, and Eric had got to the point where he found it deeply annoying rather than truly mortifying.
What would Sir Palomides do?
What would any Knight of the Round Table do? Obviously, he’d take up his lance to set things right . . . Eric shook his head. He was being fanciful. The Britannia Club was not Camelot. It was . . . civilised. Safe. Untouched and untouchable. And Flanders, too, was far away, never to return. Whatever else happened in the world outside, the Britannia was proof against it. A bastion. No, Eric thought as he turned back to his assigned manuscript. Nothing unseemly could ever happen at the Britannia.
Little did he know, twenty-four hours would change everything.