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The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin
By Brian Freemantle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Innslodge Publications Ltd
All rights reserved.
The fire boats had been placed so that their sprays created a paper-chain of rainbows for the Pride of America to sail through when she left New York for the last time. Every vessel in the harbour set up a cacophony of farewell sirens and the streamers hung, like just-washed hair, over the ship's side and from Pier 90 and several other jetties by which she slowly passed.
Lights in the twin towers of the Trade Center windows had been specially illuminated, so that the message read 'Farewell', matching the word spelled out over the Manhattan skyline by the skywriting plane which arced and circled above, its purple smoke streaming behind.
The waterside was jammed with people and the Circle Line boats had arranged special ferry trips to remain alongside until the liner reached the Statue of Liberty, a vantage point crowded with more sightseers.
It was here that Mr L. W. Lu called the major press conference on board the ship, to enable the film and television crews and journalists who would not be remaining for the entire voyage to Hong Kong to be conveniently airlifted back to La Guardia in helicopters waiting on the cleared observation deck.
There had been press flights from England and every major European country and over two hundred people crowded into the former observation bar. Not since Onassis had there been a ship-owner more internationally known, so the press-kit was hardly necessary. But Lu was a consummate publicist. As each of the pressmen had entered the room, they had been handed a bulging file setting out the already familiar history of an orphan boy born into poverty who had risen from junior shipping-office clerk to speculative investor on the Hong Kong stock market to tanker magnate, Asian oil millionaire, free enterprise entrepreneur and benefactor of three fully supported orphanages and two hospitals.
He sat on a raised dais, the panoramic view from the ship behind him, patiently waiting amid the chaos that precedes any such gathering. By his side, as always, sat his son. There was a remarkable physical resemblance between the two men. The father was a Buddha-plump, benign-looking man, the harsh klieg lights of the cameras glistening against his polished face and silk suit and occasionally, when he extended his almost constant smile, picking up the gold in his teeth. John Lu was slightly thinner and, unlike his father, wore spectacles. He had no gold in his teeth either, but that was difficult to establish because John Lu was a man who hardly ever smiled.
It was the younger man who stood first, holding out his hands for silence.
'My name is John Lu,' he said. 'I would like you to welcome my father, who wishes to begin this conference with a statement.'
There was a surprising but isolated burst of applause from the Asian journalists present and Lu smiled in appreciation. He didn't stand. He merely leant forward upon the table that had been set with microphones and radio equipment, tapped the mouthpiece to ensure he had selected the right amplifier and said, in an ordinary conversational tone, 'Thank you all for coming.'
The microphone picked up the sibilant blur in his voice and there was an immediate response, the room quietening within seconds. Lu's smile widened slightly at the reaction.
'There has been, I know, much speculation about my reasons for purchasing this still magnificent liner ...'
The man was very aware of the seating arrangements for the conference and turned fractionally towards the section he knew to be occupied by Americans.
'I have always felt it a tragedy that a vessel like the Pride of America, still the holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, should, because of a change in world travelling preference, be mothballed and left to lie almost forgotten, if not abandoned, off the coast of Virginia ...'
He paused. Imperceptibly, a glass of water appeared at his elbow from the attentive son. The Chinese sipped at it, smiling out at people he could no longer see because of the fierceness of the lights. He made almost an affectation of politeness.
'And so,' he resumed, 'I have found for it a function that will maintain the liner not only in its former glory, but put it to a purpose that will make it perhaps more famous than it ever was as a sea link between Europe and America ...'
The millionaire paused again, to achieve effect.
'We are bound, as you know, for Hong Kong. Once there, it will be necessary to carry out some alterations and modifications for that role, a role best explained by the new name which will appear on its hull – the University of Freedom.'
There was another pause, this time forced upon him by the sudden burst of noise from the assembled journalists. Lu raised his hand, silencing the room again, then gestured to a bank of seats upon which a group of people had assembled minutes before the opening of the conference.
'You see behind me,' he announced, 'professors who have agreed to take chairs at this university and who have joined me from the Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Oxford, Yale and Harvard ...'
There was a fresh outburst of noise from the journalists and a slight shift in the lighting at the sudden demand for identification.
Lu gestured again. 'Some of you may recognise Professor James Northcote, from Harvard, recipient of last year's Nobel Prize in Physics ...'
The lights and cameras wavered and a bonily thin, balding man shuffled awkwardly into a half-standing position and nodded his head.
'... an indication,' took up Lu, bringing the attention back to himself, 'of the level of teaching which will be available at my university.'
He indicated the man who had opened the conference.
'Under the personal control and organisation of my son, I intend to provide perhaps the best education in the world for students of any nationality.'
He made a deprecatory gesture with his hands.
'There are some of you who may already know a little about me,' he said, pausing for the laughter that came from the room and smiling with it. 'Those that do will be aware of the steadfast conviction and belief that I have advanced whenever possible ... a conviction and belief that the free, democratic world is growing increasingly blind to the dangers of communism ...'
He sipped from his water glass.
'I believe there is a need for that warning to be repeated, over and over again, until people at last begin to take proper notice. So upon the University of Freedom I will provide something more than a superior education. Every undergraduate, no matter what subject he reads, will compulsorily attend daily lectures at which will be fully debated and explained the dangers of the evil, pernicious regime which exists upon the mainland of China ...'
Lu rose for the first time, waving his hands to quell the clamour.
'A pernicious regime,' he repeated, the hiss in his voice more obvious because he had to shout, 'which, because of its growing acceptance by the free world, endangers the very existence of democracy.'
Lu remained standing, very aware of his stance and the sound of the cameras recording it, refusing any questions. At last the sound died.
'The University of Freedom will be permanently anchored off a small island in the Hong Kong archipelago,' he enlarged. 'We will be less than five miles from the Chinese mainland, a constant and visible reminder to Peking of the truth it tries so hard to suppress ...'
Lu sat, nodding to his son. It took fifteen minutes to achieve adherence to the system of questioning upon which Lu insisted, receiving queries first from the American section and then from the European press. Two hours had been set aside for the conference, but it overran by a further two, so that the liner had to slow and finally turn back in a meandering arc upon itself to enable the helicopters to get away, just before nightfall.
The discussions with the assembled academics had been purposely shortened, to guarantee coverage from the journalists travelling in the liner down the east coast to the Panama Canal. The Pride of America stopped at Hawaii during its crossing of the Pacific and Lu chartered another plane to fly in journalists demanding access as the result of the concerted publicity during the voyage.
The arrival in Hong Kong was even more dramatic than the departure from New York. Lu had instructed his tanker and liner fleet to assemble and the Pride of America sailed along a five-mile avenue of welcoming, hooting vessels. All the time, it was preceded by two helicopters, between which was supported a massive pennant spelling out its new name, and on the final mile it had to negotiate fire boats which had introduced dye into their water tanks, creating Technicolor fountains of greeting.
It was mid-morning before the Chinese millionaire and son reached their house on the far side of the Peak. Immediately they entered the sunken lounge a servant brought in tea, but it was John Lu who solicitously poured it for his father, standing back and waiting for an indication of approval.
'Very nice,' said the older man.
John smiled gratefully, the attitude one of constant deference.
'The publicity has been fantastic,' he said. He spoke hopefully, anxious his father would agree with the opinion.
Lu nodded. 'It's a matter of organisation.'
'Surely you didn't expect this amount of coverage?'
'No,' admitted Lu. 'Not even I had expected it to go so well.'
'Let's hope everything else is as successful,' said the younger man.
His father frowned at the doubt. Without an audience, Lu rarely smiled.
'Surely that's been even more carefully organised?'
It was a reminder, not a question.
'Yes,' said John hurriedly. 'Of course.'
'Then we've nothing to worry about.'
'I hope not.'
'So do I,' said Lu. 'I hope that very much ...'
John's nervousness increased at the tone of his father's voice.
'You mustn't forget,' continued Lu, 'that the whole thing is being done for you.'
'I won't forget,' said the son. Or be allowed to, he knew.
Jenny Lin Lee had become quiet as the car moved up the winding roads through Hong Kong Heights, actually passing the Lu mansion, and she had realised their destination. By the time Robert Nelson parked outside the Repulse Bay Hotel, she was sitting upright in the passenger seat, staring directly ahead.
'You know why not.'
'Everyone comes here on Sunday.'
'So why shouldn't we?'
'Chinese whores aren't welcome, that's why.'
Nelson gripped the wheel, not looking at her.
'You know I don't like that word.'
'Because it's the correct one.'
'Not any more.'
'They don't know that,' she said, moving her head towards the open, bougainvillaeahedged verandah and the restaurant beyond.
'Who gives a damn what they know?'
'Because I don't want to shame you in their eyes.'
He reached across for her hand, but she kept it rigidly against her knee. She was shaking, he realised.
'I love you, Jenny,' he said. 'I know what you were and it doesn't offend me. Doesn't even interest me. Any more than what they think interests me.'
She gestured towards the hotel again, an angry movement. He wasn't a very good liar, she decided.
'The rules don't allow it,' she said.
'What rules?' he demanded, trying to curb the anger.
'The rules by which the British expatriates live,' she said.
He laughed, trying to relax her. She remained stiff in the seat beside him.
'Don't be silly,' he pleaded.
'I know them,' she insisted. 'Had them sweating over me at night and shoving past me in the street with their wives the following morning, contemptuous that I exist.'
'Come on,' he said, determinedly getting out of the vehicle.
He walked around to the passenger side, opening her door.
She stayed staring ahead.
'Come on,' he repeated.
She didn't move.
'Please,' he said. He had begun to enunciate clearly, a man intending to show his words and judgment were unaffected by the mid-morning whisky back at the apartment.
She looked up at him, still unable to gauge the effect of drink upon him, but with a professional awareness of its dangers.
'It's a mistake,' she warned him.
'No it's not,' he said, reaching out for her.
Reluctantly she got out of the car. He took her arm, leading her to the verandah, gazing around defiantly for seats. There were two at the end, with a poor view of the sun-silvered bay and the township of Aberdeen beyond, but he hurried to them, ahead of another couple who emerged from inside the hotel.
The waiter was not slow in approaching them but Nelson began waving his hands, clapping them together for attention, and when the drinks were finally served Jenny spilled some of hers in the contagious nervousness and then used too much water trying to remove the stain. It meant there was a large damp patch on her skirt when they finally walked to the buffet line and then to the table he had reserved. Conscious of it, she walked awkwardly. At the table, she ate with her head bent over her plate, rarely looking up when he tried to speak to her.
'They know,' she said. 'It's like a smell to them.'
'No one has even looked at us,' he tried to reassure her.
'Of course not,' she said. 'They know. But to them I do not exist.'
The man whose job it had been to prevent Jenny Lin Lee setting up home with Robert Nelson and who had failed to frighten her was tied that night beneath the Red Star ferry that crosses the harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong island in such a way that by straining upwards he could just keep his mouth free of the water, but not far enough for his shouts for help to be heard above the noise of the engine. It took several hours before he became completely exhausted and collapsed back into the water, to drown. And several days before the ropes slackened, releasing the body.
Some time later, already partially decomposed and attacked by fish, it surfaced against the sampans and junks that cling like seaweed to the island side of the harbour.
Knowing it not to be one of them, because sampan people never fall into the water, and with the gypsies' suspicion of the official enquiries it would cause, they poled the corpse along from craft to craft, until it caught in the currents of the open water, near Kai Tak airport, and disappeared out to sea.
The man's disappearance was never questioned. Nor wondered at. Nor reported, either.CHAPTER 2
Seven thousand miles and eight hours apart, there was another lunch that Sunday, as unsuccessful as that of Jenny Lin Lee and Robert Nelson.
Charlie Muffin drove carefully, habitually watchful for any car that remained too long behind. He was unused to the road, too, and was looking for the pub accorded three stars in the guide book. He hoped to Christ it was better than the one the previous week: cottage pie made from Saturday's meat scraps, over-warm beer, a bill for £5 and indigestion until Wednesday. At least it had given him something to think about. He sighed, annoyed at the increasingly familiar self-pity. Last time it had almost killed him.
He glanced behind at the thought, checking again, and nearly missed what he was looking for. The Saxon Warrior lay back from the road, an instant antique of sculpted thatch over mock-Tudor beams. Inside he knew there would be mahoganied plastic, fruit machines in every bar and men wearing blazers and cravats solving Britain's economic ills while they felt the milled edges of the coins in their pockets to decide if they could buy the next round of drinks.
'Shit,' said Charlie fervently. He pulled into the car park and looked at his watch. He hadn't time to find an alternative. Not if he wanted to eat. All he had at the flat was cold beef.
Few people saw Charlie enter, because he didn't want them to and had long ago perfected being unobtrusive. He reached the bar between a group of men to his left reallocating Britain's oil wealth and a circle to his right undermining communist influence in Africa. The fruit machine was by the toilets. The people around had formed a kitty, in an effort to recover their money before closing time.
The barmaid was a blonde, tightly corseted woman with the bright smile that barmaids share with politicians. Charlie estimated she was about twenty years older than the pub.
'Whisky,' said Charlie, unwilling to risk the beer. There would be no danger, provided he restricted himself to two.
'And lunch,' he said, when the woman returned with the drink.
'There's mince,' she offered doubtfully, looking behind her to the serving hatch.
'No,' said Charlie. At least last week they'd disguised it with instant mashed potato.
'Bread and cheese?'
Excerpted from The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1979 Innslodge Publications Ltd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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