Madrigal for Charlie Muffin, page 1
Madrigal for Charlie Muffin
For David and Patricia, hoteliers
extraordinary! With much love
Madrigal for Charlie Muffin: 1
A Biography of Brian Freemantle
I am always with myself and it is
I who am my tormentor
Tolstoy Memoirs of a Madman
It was an assassination method the Russians had perfected, the bullet soft-nosed and lightly packed, from an adapted Tokarev automatic. There had been no exit wound, just an instantaneous explosion of the heart. The photograph showed no distortion of the features: the dead man looked as if he might awaken at any moment, just like the others had done. Sir Alistair Wilson was surprised at that. He would have expected an expression of pain. The intelligence director pushed the latest file away, knowing there was nothing he could learn from it. Delhi, Ankara and now Bangkok: and he was no closer to the traitor now than he had been six months ago, when the killings of embassy intelligence Residents started.
Wilson felt impotent, having to rely so completely upon Alexander Hotovy. The man’s defection from the Czech embassy in London had been agreed when the assassinations began. And was immediately postponed, for Hotovy, a major in the Statni Tajna Bezpecnost, the Czech intelligence service, to earn his asylum by discovering how the British operatives were being pinpointed. The initial response had been encouraging: perhaps too much so. Within a week, Hotovy confirmed that all Eastern bloc embassies were receiving, via Moscow, details of British cabinet guidance to overseas ambassadors, together with personnel details from which it was easy to isolate intelligence officers in the field. Then came the stalemate. By the time the guidance arrived from Russia, all indication of original source had been removed. Which meant Wilson knew he had a spy in a British embassy somewhere in the world, but not which one. The trap had seemed feasible, even clever, when he devised it. That had been six months before and since then two more people had died.
The irritation of his own ineffectiveness was showing on Wilson’s face when he looked up at his deputy’s entry.
‘It’s worked!’ declared Peter Harkness.
For a moment Wilson didn’t speak. Then he said: ‘Sure?’
‘Thank God for that!’ How long would it take, he wondered.
General Valery Kalenin’s car was an official Zil, authorized to use the exclusive centre lane of Moscow roads, but the traffic at night was light, so the privilege reserved for members of the Soviet hierarchy was unnecessary. Kalenin’s driver still used it; he enjoyed the advantage of power more than the KGB chief. The Zil swept past Kutuzovsky Prospect and the Kremlin towards Dzerzhinsky Square. That day’s overseas files and reports were waiting for him, neatly arranged in order of their late-afternoon transmission. Kalenin unfastened his jacket, lit a tube-filtered cigarette and settled down to work. He read steadily and carefully, annotating margin notes from which his deputies could initiate action the following day.
For years Kalenin had maintained an office cleaner at the British embassy in Cairo. Usually the information was of low-level interest, little more than the occasional indiscretion from a waste-paper basket, from which they had to make a surmise. But sometimes there was something worthwhile. Like tonight. Kalenin had a retentive memory and saw the significance at once. A meticulously cautious man, he went to the filing cabinet where the intelligence from his top agents was kept and located at once what he wanted, turning the shade of his angled light upon an identical message he had received a month earlier. Identical but for one thing. The source of the first message was listed as Cape Town. The origin of the second, which he had upon his desk, was given as Lagos. From the advice docket attached to the initial information he saw that it had been transmitted a week before to the Warsaw Pact capitals, for guidance to their embassies.
Kalenin returned to his desk and for a long time stared sightlessly at the wall. A trap had been set and he had fallen into it: and it could hardly have happened at a worse time. The qualification came almost at once. If he were clever, it could be worse for others.
British and Soviet intelligence operations began within twenty-four hours of each other, one to uncover, the other to conceal.
The Russians had the advantage. Kalenin had anticipated the possibility and had the framework of a protection operation ready. He went again to the filing cabinets, for the dossier on Charlie Muffin.
Charlie Muffin jarred stiff-kneed along Cheyne Walk, head bent to concentrate upon the pavement cracks. Easy to make a straight line; always had been. Just fix on the pavement joins and left right, foot either side, like the police-station tests in the old days, before the breathalyzer. Done it a dozen times pissed as a monkey. Never pulled department weight, until it became absolutely necessary. Rarely had been. Always able to make the straight walk, enunciate the trick phrases from the card, without denting the words. Sherry’s a difficult one, when you’re Brahms and Liszt. Always clever to use that. Just a sherry, officer, maybe two. National service reunion: get together with the boys; you know the sort of thing. Should have remembered the pills, of course. Trying a new treatment, for the migraine. Nasty business, Malaya: nasty wound, too. Not much to talk about, really. Lucky to have made it, so the doctors say; should have warned me about the pills though, silly buggers. Terribly sorry. Guarantee it won’t happen again. That a Korea ribbon? North Africa! Christ, now that must have been a war. ’Course it won’t happen again, officer. Solemn promise.
Bit different now. Couldn’t defeat the progress of science: blow into the bag, pee in the bottle, blood smear under the microscope and there you were, fucked without a kiss.
Charlie looked up, neck aching from the effort. To his right, the bridge illuminations necklaced the Thames, chokers of ambers and yellows and whites and reds. Charlie blinked, trying to sharpen the blur. Too bright to be Battersea Bridge. The Albert then. Shit: he’d done it again. He peered across the road for confirmation and got it from the road sign. Oakley Street. Second time it had happened recently. Or was it the third? He couldn’t remember; didn’t matter anyway. Missing Battersea Bridge did. Probably easier to go back. Why bother? He wasn’t going anywhere, not tonight. Or any other night. Charlie reached out for the support of the metalwork, swinging himself into position to cross the bridge for the roundabout route to his Battersea flat. The footpath ribboned away ahead of him and Charlie paused for a moment, breathing deeply like an Olympic athlete preparing himself for the run that would win the gold. The pavement cracks; that’s all he needed, a line of pavement cracks. He started out, head forward again, left right, left right, the impact against the concrete hard beneath his heels.
Used this bridge a lot in the early days. Vauxhall and Lambeth too. Mattered then, to vary the route. Not just on foot either. Underground during the rush hour when there were people among whom he could get lost. Buses, too. And a taxi, wh
Never suspicious any more. No one was chasing Charlie Muffin. Quite safe to have a few drinks. No worry about surveillance.
He jerked up suddenly, grimacing in half-remembered awareness. Confined space, easy to spot. So they’d be running parallel observation, maybe triangular, one behind, one in front and the other making the third point, on the opposite side of the road. Charlie turned awkwardly, stumbling as his foot edge missed the kerb. He snatched sideways, grabbing for the wall. Far behind, on the further side of the road, a couple meandered entangled in groping love. In front a girl was approaching, hobbled by a short, thigh-hugging skirt. A man strode past him, bowler purposefully slanted over his forehead, tightly furled umbrella striking the ground in time to his marched progress, like a parade sergeant’s staff. Too dark and too quick to see the regimental tie, but there’d be one. Just like the pricks who took over the department and tried to get him killed. Screwed them, though. Sucked them up and blew them out in bubbles.
He frowned, trying to remember why he was standing in the middle of the bridge, with his back protectively against the parapet. Surveillance! Trying to observe the observers. He sniggered, conscious of the whisky fumes at the back of his throat. Still good enough to spot them, if they’d been there. Quite safe, he decided positively.
He pulled upright, to continue across the river, confronting the girl approaching him. The skirt was tighter than he’d first thought. And shorter. Wasn’t wearing a bra either, he saw, conscious of the bouncing turmoil under the clinging sweater. A professional, judged Charlie, with a vague stir of interest. He tried quickly to guess how much money he had in his pocket, feeling the coin edges and attempting to count the notes, holding them unseen separately between his fingers. Difficult to tell. Maybe ten pounds. More likely five or six, where he’d counted twice. Should be sufficient for a short time. Charlie squared himself, ready for the approach. The girl detected the interest, slowing her walk. Then, quickly checking the traffic in both directions, she crossed the roadway, heading for Chelsea and a better class of client on the opposite side of the river.
‘Fuck me,’ said Charlie inappropriately. Once more he sniggered. No one wanted Charlie Muffin; not even whores.
Or Rupert Willoughby. The thought broke through the drunkenness and he stopped sniggering. The call to the Lloyds underwriter had been a gesture of desperation, the thing he’d tried to avoid after what had happened with Clarissa in America. Unavailable, the secretary had said. Bit different from his wife. The booze washed through him, flooding the reflection. Charlie resumed his stilted progress, left right, left right, guiding himself by the kerb rim when there weren’t any paving stones, turning westwards at the far side of the bridge and retracing his path through the streets until he got to the tower block in which he hid, an ant among other ants. There were two bicycles fixed to the stair railings by a security chain and beneath the stairwell an abandoned pushchair, robbed of its wheels and squatting on its axle like the mother ant. There was a sour odour of dust and cabbage and paraffin. Someone had written ‘It’s me against the world’ with an aerosol can across the far wall.
‘Hope you win,’ muttered Charlie. He hadn’t.
The lift was broken, which was usual, so he stumped up the stairs, pausing at each floor, breath wheezing from him. His legs ached with the effort and, by the time he reached the fourteenth storey, he felt ill and sick. He reached out, supporting himself against the wall. It was several minutes before he could go through the linking door into his corridor. He stumbled on to the doorway, initially missing the lock with his key. Eventually inside, he slumped down, without taking off the plastic raincoat which hadn’t been necessary anyway, because the forecast had been wrong and it hadn’t even drizzled.
‘Buggered,’ he told himself. ‘You’re completely buggered, Charlie.’
It hadn’t been so difficult, when he’d first gone on the run. Often climbed the stairs then, to check if anyone was following, ducking in and out of landings, ears strained for the sound of pursuit. He’d done other things too in the surveillance detection manual. Like leaving miniscule fabric placings around the door to detect entry, and examining the lock for minute scratches, and arranging books and shirts and pocket flaps in certain ways, so he would know if there’d been a search. And always leaving the window open to the fire escape, for immediate flight.
Then there had been a reason for it. Edith had been alive, sharing the existence and the fear, ageing visibly and trying to hide it. ‘I didn’t know it was going to be like this, Edith. But trust me. We’ll beat the bastards.’ And so she’d trusted him, like she always had. But he hadn’t beaten them. At the moment when it had mattered, when he thought the vengeance hunt had been abandoned, he’d relaxed. And the bullet meant for him had taken away half her spine.
Charlie shook his head, an angry, physical gesture. The recollections of Edith were in the closed, no-entry part of his mind, the place of the deepest guilt. Always came out when he drank too much.
Charlie struggled up, moving through the pot-cluttered kitchen, opening cupboards and then the refrigerator, staring disappointedly at the age-wrinkled tomato and some forgotten celery, limp like he would probably have been if the whore hadn’t crossed the road. He’d meant to bring something back from the pub, but he’d forgotten: he seemed to forget a lot of things lately. Charlie groped back into the main room, staring around as if seeing it for the first time.
The home of the nobody man. There were no mementoes or souvenirs or photographs, not even of Edith. It was like a doll’s house setting, which real people never occupied, a small settee and two matching chairs and a cabinet with some books he could never maintain the concentration to read and a television which bored him with its inanities. A place to come to, out of the rain, when the forecasters got it right.
Directly inside the bedroom, Charlie halted in near fright at the sudden, sag-shouldered reflection in the wardrobe mirror. He still wore the unnecessary raincoat and looked like a bundle that someone had been embarrassed about and tied in polythene before leaving on a rubbish dump. About right, he thought. He undressed, letting the clothes puddle about him on the floor, but ignored the bed. Charlie knew it would rise and fall on the sea of booze if he lay down, until he had to dash for the bathroom anyway. He filled the basin with water and sank his face deeply into it. He kept coming up for breath, then down again, finally panting to a halt and gazing at his dripping, pouch-eyed image. Broken veins showed bright in his nose and cheeks.
‘Bloody fool,’ he said. The whisky-buoyed bravado was ebbing away. They wouldn’t have forgotten. Just one mistake and the hunt would start all over again. And he didn’t want to get caught. Any life, even one as empty as that he now lived, was better than what would happen if they ever found him.
Charlie dried his face and was reentering the bedroom when the telephone which never rang jarred through the tiny apartment. His immediate reaction was one of fear. He watched it for several moments and then reached out hesitantly.
‘Hello?’ There was still a vague fog of alcohol in his voice.
‘Charlie,’ said the voice. ‘I’ve been calling you for hours. It’s Rupert Willoughby.’
Charlie had rehearsed the approach but when the time came he couldn’t think of the prepared words. Instead, he said, ‘I’d like to see you.’
‘Good idea,’ said the underwriter. ‘I’ve got a bit of a problem.’
It was a measure of how careless Charlie had become that he talked unaware of the listening device that had been implanted in his receiver. In the early days he had dismantled it regularly, but, as with everything else, he hadn’t bothered for months.
Sure of the man and his movements, they recrossed the river after the surveillance ended, because the pubs were better in Chelsea and Pimlico. They should not have gathered in a group at all, just as they shouldn’t have left Char
‘Good health,’ said the man, lifting the beer mug. His fingernails were bitten and he had chipped teeth; his breath smelled and the girl in the exaggerated high heels was glad she hadn’t been selected to be his partner.
‘Cheers,’ she said. Beneath the table she slipped off the shoes and began kneading her feet. ‘I actually thought he was going to approach me tonight.’
‘What would you have done?’ asked the man.
Knowing the answer would upset him, she said, ‘Gone with him, of course.’
‘It’s been a year,’ protested the other woman. ‘It’s stupid.’ Crossing the bridge, her partner had touched her breast, twice, pretending it was an accident but she knew it hadn’t been. She knew there was no objection she could make either. Dirty bastard.
‘Difficult to imagine that he was once so good, isn’t it?’ said the man reflectively.
‘I don’t think he ever was,’ said the girl in the prostitute’s disguise. ‘I think it’s some typical bureaucratic mistake in Moscow; the sort of thing they do all the time.’
The man shook his head positively. ‘Not this one. Charlie Muffin is important, for some reason.’ He looked at his watch. ‘We’d better get back to the embassy.’
The two women looked at each other, irritated. It was the third night in succession he’d avoided buying any drinks and they were sure he was charging more on his expenses than they were.
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