Blood Money (chapters nine and ten.)
Chaplin rung the doorbell of the luxurious mansion and turned to face an almost deserted Hyde Park. Even though it was the first day of March, there was no variation in the dreary, cold climate.
Behind him, he heard the familiar Irish brogue escaping from the intercom. “Come on in, Mr Chaplin.”
The entrance hall was impressive without being too grand. A selection of landscapes of Ireland hung on the sage green walls and a large chandelier caught the eye. Carrying his briefcase, the nervous solicitor advanced along the corridor, his footsteps echoing as they pounded against the polished, teak floor. Chaplin halted at the open door of the study.
“Punctuality, I like that in a man,” groaned O’Hara in a deep gruff voice.
The Irishman was seated on a large armchair that resembled a throne. He was wearing a satin, burgundy smoking jacket and a large cigar was smouldering between his fingers. In his other hand was a large glass of brandy.
“Help yourself to a drink, Chaplin. There’s good Irish whiskey there, but I don’t touch the stuff myself. A brandy man, I am.”
“It’s a bit early for me, Mr O’Hara.”
“Nonsense man. I hate to drink alone.”
Reluctantly, Chaplin ambled towards the well-stocked bar and poured himself a whiskey. His stomach rumbled and his mouth was dry.
“Well let’s see what you’ve come up with, Chaplin.”
The Londoner settled down in a green leather armchair and opened up his briefcase. He handed over the three files to O’Hara. It was a full five minutes before the Irishman spoke.
“You assume that I’ll approve of the three subjects? Perhaps you misunderstood me, Chaplin, but you were to hand me a various assortment of hopefuls for my selection.”
“I realise that, Mr O’Hara, but given the schedule you proposed, there was hardly time enough for me to pursue a thorough worldwide search. You yourself demanded that I work alone... I think you’ll find the subjects more than suitable.”
O’Hara again perused through the files. “The Greek pilot, I like that, but this Mukhtar fellow. I mean, he can hardly be described as underprivileged now could he? It says here that he lives in a house in Islamabad.”
“He lives with friends. Mukhtar is unemployed and has no income. As you can see, he lost his family in the earthquake.”
The deep blue eyes of O’Hara studied the face of the solicitor. “I wish to meet our three heroes here in London. Can you arrange this?”
“Of course. Which date will be most convenient for you, Mr O’Hara?”
“Let’s say Saturday at noon shall we? I assume, you’ll make the appropriate travel arrangements?”
O’Hara left his throne and wandered towards one of his landscapes. After removing it from the wall, he fiddled with the dial of his old-fashioned safe. He counted out two large piles of money before locking the safe.
“This I presume will cover the cost of the airfares and your expenses, along with the hotel reservations for our guests. I trust they will be favourably accommodated in a top hotel. If it is not to your satisfaction, please let me know... I have forwarded your fee to your employers, but as promised, here is your bonus, one hundred thousand pounds... I don’t usually hand over payment until the work has been completed, but for you, Chaplin I’ll make an exception. I can trust you can’t I?”
“Of course, Mr O’Hara... Wouldn’t a cheque have been more suitable?”
“I don’t deal in cheques, boy.”
“And the three subjects? Surely you...”
“Cash, Chaplin. They’ll be paid in cash. I trust you have no objections?”
Chaplin shook his head. “Of course they will be safely escorted to a bank?”
“Whatever?” mumbled O’Hara. “Well, that concluded our business, Chaplin.”
“About the leak to the press, Mr O’Hara. I think an immediate release could prove to be most influential.”
“Really? Then go for it, boy. I’ll await the press release with eager anticipation... A good day to you, Chaplin.”
Pauline Chaplin had dined at some of London’s finest restaurants, but nothing as grand as the China Tang restaurant in Mayfair. Even her exquisite red dress and diamond necklace that her husband had purchased that very day could not disguise her paranoia. Although her husband, Sam often treated her, this evening, he had excelled himself. A lavish feast was to be followed by a trip to Her Majesty’s Theatre to see Les Miserables.
“Is there something wrong dear?” asked Chaplin, tucking in to his Peking duck.
Pauline blushed. “Have you won the lottery, Sam? I mean, this place; well just look at it.”
The oriental antiques and the thick carpets exemplified the 1920’s style restaurant. Mirrored pillars, wooden fretwork frames and upholstered banquettes added to the ambience.
“Let’s just say that my efforts have been rewarded at last... Lighten up, Pauline; you’re entitled to use this restaurant just as much as the so-called celebrities and the rich... More Chablis, dear?”
Pauline, at the age of thirty-five was three years older than her brother, Dean. Her striking pale, grey eyes like those of her sibling, complimented her finely chiselled features. Her long brown hair was brushed immaculately, and only her thin lips and slightly uneven teeth prevented the woman from being portrayed as beautiful.
She waited until the uniformed waiter left their table before speaking. “Sam, this doesn’t make sense.”
Chaplin chewed vigorously on his Peking duck. “I’ve told you I...”
“No!” Pauline glowed even more after realising that she had spoken loudly. “Sam, I’ve seen the credit card bills.”
“You’ve been through my mail?”
Pauline put down her knife and fork and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “There were several bills that haven’t been opened. Okay, so I was curious and for good reason. How could you have..?”
“Forget the bills. They’ll be history soon.”
“How can you say that? Just what have you been spending money on?”
Chaplin’s appetite was ruined. He took a swig of his Chablis before responding. “I made mistakes, Pauline. I invested in some dodgy property and the credit cards were just so convenient. Christ, haven’t you ever made mistakes before?”
Pauline glared at her husband. “And just what do you mean by that?”
“That bloody florists you bought. Not exactly a goldmine was it?”
“The florists, I purchased with my own money, Sam... Damn you, how could you have gambled with David’s future?”
Chaplin reached for his wife’s hands. “Listen, Pauline, I swear everything is going to be just fine, believe me... I cannot tell you the details, but we’re going to be wealthy very soon.”
“Oh, and so Hector and Bullard are going to increase your salary tenfold are they? I don’t like the way you’re talking, Sam, it scares me.”
“Trust me that’s all I ask. Trust me, dear.”
Pauline was lost for a moment, eyeing the couple who were being pampered by the waiters. She searched her mind in an attempt to put a name to the tanned man. She turned her attention back to her husband. “You said you couldn’t tell me the details. Please don’t tell me what you’re about to do is dishonest.”
“I swear to you, Pauline, everything is above board... That cruise you were speaking of in the Caribbean. I’ll buy you your own yacht if that’s what you want.”
Pauline smiled falsely. Even though her husband’s words were meant to please her, she felt scared. She noticed a drastic change in her husband; a change for the worse.
Chaplin unconsciously felt the bulge in his inside pocket. The bonus he had received from O’Hara, he was not about to disclose to his brother in law. The Irishman had been generous with the expense money and the solicitor was dining on the surplus. Greed was a dangerous emotion to possess and avarice now flowed freely through his veins.
Jack Pepper, as promised had leaked information about O’Hara’s charitable donations in his newspaper. The names of the three recipients had also been added, hence the interest of the media outside the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone.
Chaplin, Manaf, Kannelllakis and Mukhtar dashed through the mid-morning drizzle towards the waiting limousine. Each of the alleged heroes was suitably attired, courtesy of their benefactor, Morris O’Hara.
Having briefed the three, Chaplin was still a nervous man. His main concern was Manaf, who looked like butter would not melt in his mouth. The fresh-faced youth, even wearing a smart suit, still managed to look like a lost schoolboy about to face his headmaster. Chaplin had drilled into the Indonesian to keep his dialogue to a minimal. Under no circumstances was he to mention Dean Scott.
Chaplin turned his attention to the Greek, Darius Kannellakis. The middle-aged man looked older than his thirty-eight years; access alcohol having taken its toll. The craggy-faced man looked like a typical Greek, his droopy moustache hinting towards his nationality. Chaplin noticed that his hands were shaking as he chain-smoked.
Mukhtar Ahmed smiled a lot, his arrogance plain to see. Chaplin secretly despised the cock-sure man. Racial prejudice did not enter the equation; it was Mukhtar’s manner that deemed him untrustworthy.
The edgy solicitor looked over his shoulder to see the fleet of the media following. Mr O’Hara would be pleased, he thought. The limousine came to a halt outside O’Hara’s mansion, and as expected, representatives from the television media were present.
The four men left the limousine, amid a barrage of flashlights. The media soon turned their attention to Morris O’Hara, who made an appearance on his doorstep. Wearing an immaculate Armani suit and sporting a broad smile, the Irishman milked the attention. He ushered his guests inside, ignoring the questions that were being directed towards him. He posed once more for the cameras before retreating indoors.
Chaplin and the three bewildered subjects followed the butler to the lavish dining room and were seated accordingly. The quartet marvelled at the extravagant surroundings. The long oak table was covered with the finest silverware, and the roaring, open fire added to the medieval environment. A coat of arms was displayed above the fireplace and several knights in armour were dotted around the dining room. The landscapes of Ireland that were such a focal point of his study and entrance hall were missing, replaced by several portraits, including O’Hara’s own.
O’Hara joined his guests and wandered around the table, shaking each of their hands. “Gentlemen, I am in awe of each of you. To save so many lives without a thought for your own welfare makes you supreme, and you rightly deserve to see out the rest of your lives in luxury.”
The Irishman took his place at the head of the table before speaking again. He clapped his hands and a cluster of waiters entered the room, carrying several serving salvers and an assortment of wine.
“With regards to your nationality, you will be treated to a delicious feast of various cultures. On offer are mystical curries and spices from Pakistan and Indonesia, and a selection of Greek delicacies. Feel free to sample the British cuisine. Gentlemen, eat, drink and be merry.”
Chaplin opted for the roast beef and watched each of the foreigners as they tucked into their food. Manaf appeared to be unsettled by the grandeur lauded upon him as he devoured his boiled chicken in coconut sauce, rice, peppers and salad. That Manif refused to make eye contact with his host, worried Chaplin, who attempted to start a conversation, once the catering staff had departed.
“This is most delicious, Mr O’Hara.”
“I agree,” followed Mukhtar, feasting on his mutton pulao.
Manaf remained silent and sheepishly nodded his approval.
“And you, Mr Kannellakis? Is the food to your liking?”
Chaplin was impressed that the Irishman had remembered the name of the ex-pilot, although it did not surprise him. O’Hara was a thorough and knowledgeable man.
“The food is fine,” answered Kannellakis.
“Splendid... Manaf, I read your story with interest. It can’t have been easy watching your family perish, but you still persisted in helping more of your people to reach the high ground.” He now read from a file. “One family in particular owes you their lives, Hasyiny, Samsiah and their daughter Naula.”
Chaplin’s heart beat double time as he watched Manaf being scrutinised.
“It was nothing, Mr O’Hara. They were my friends. You see, everyone in my village is my friend. Hasyiny would not have hesitated to do likewise if he found himself in my position.”
“Perhaps,” mumbled O’Hara. “You speak splendid English, Manaf. Your uncle must have been a great teacher?”
Again, Chaplin was impressed by O’Hara’s thoroughness.
“He was. My uncle and his family also died on Lambada Lhok.”
O’Hara was now studying the news cutting manufactured by Pepper. “One thing that baffles me, Manaf.”
The young Indonesian glanced at Chaplin, who narrowed his eyes. “What is that, Mr O’Hara?”
You see, although I don’t use these darned new-fangled computers, I had a friend do a check on you. Don’t look so worried, Manaf; I checked each of you out. I mean, you canno be too careful nowadays can you? Anyway, going back to my friend. He found a website that featured the story of you and how you lost your family in the tsunami, only there was no mention of Hasyiny and his family.”
“Mr O’Hara,” began Manaf. “Modesty is an attribute I inherited from my father and so many of my people. I did not wish to portray myself as a hero, which I certainly am not.”
O’Hara smiled. “You’re right, Manaf, you are modest, but how did the press pick up on your story?”
“There were many foreign reporters at Lambada Lhok after the tsunami. Obviously, someone exaggerated the truth.”
The blood now drained from the face of Chaplin.
“But it was true was it not?” asked O’Hara.
Manaf paused. “Yes, it was true, but there were many real heroes that day in my village, so why I have been singled out by you, I do not know.”
O’Hara seemed to be pleased with the answer. “You showed great courage that day in tragic circumstances... Tell me, Manaf. If I agreed to donate one million pounds to you, what would you do with it?”
Manaf sipped his fruit juice before responding. “The money would go towards rebuilding my village. Also, a monument would be erected in memory of my people.”
O’Hara nodded his approval and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “Chaplin, you have indeed made a fine choice. If you’re finished gentlemen, we’ll retire into my study.”
O’Hara led the way and Chaplin grasped the arm of Manaf and smiled. “You did well,” he whispered.
The solicitor was now relaxed after the inquisition of Manaf was apparently concluded. Reaching their destination, O’Hara invited them to be seated in the comfortable, leather armchairs. The Irishman was perched on his throne and looked down on his subjects.
“Help yourself to cigars gentlemen, and drinks are freely available at the bar. I realise that your religion may prevent you from savouring alcohol, so I’ve taken this into account with a selection of soft drinks.”
Chaplin poured himself a large Irish whiskey and opted for one of the large Cuban cigars. Kannellakis clamped one of the huge cigars between his teeth and poured himself an orange juice. The reformed alcoholic resisted the temptation to sample the alcohol on offer.
Surprisingly, Mukhtar poured himself a liberal measure of vodka and plucked one of the cigars from the container. Manaf, as expected declined the offer of tobacco and opted for a pineapple juice.
O’Hara puffed frantically on his cigar and turned his attention to Mukhtar. “How the world is changing. I wouldn’t have thought that you had acquired a taste for alcohol, given of course your upbringing. I could find little about you, Mukhtar. According to your file, you live in Islamabad, and after hearing of the earthquake in Muzaffarabad, you made your way there, naturally worried about your parents. You have no brothers or sisters?”
“That is correct, Mr O’Hara.”
O’Hara turned back to the file. “On reaching Muzaffarabad, you learned of the death of your parents, but stayed there for several weeks, helping to rescue your stricken people. This newspaper article bears out your story, but I’m curious, Mukhtar.”
“Why were you living in Islamabad?”
“My parents were very poor and so I went there looking for work.”
“And did you find work?”
“O’Hara sipped on his brandy and continued his probing. “So where did you live in Islamabad?”
“With friends, mostly in squats, Mr O’Hara.”
“Friends? And how did you meet these friends?”
Mukhtar seemed unmoved by the questioning and smiled. “I met them when I was begging on the streets.”
“You were begging? I’m a little confused here. You went looking for work to help with the welfare of your parents and resorted to begging?”
“I could not find work and so had no choice.”
O’Hara was now teasing his subject and puffed profusely on his cigar. “It says here that Lance Peebles, a Red Cross worker helped to find you accommodation in Islamabad.”
“He did find me lodgings.”
“You seem like a well-educated young man. I find it difficult to believe that you could not find work.”
“It is true, Mr O’Hara. I made a pittance from shining shoes, but finding decent work in Islamabad is difficult.”
Chaplin added his support. “Every penny that Mukhtar earned he sent to his parents, Mr O’Hara.”
“Rupees Chaplin,” gloated O’Hara. “He earned rupees not pennies.”
O’Hara stroked his bulbous, red nose and turned his attention to Kannellakis. “Darius, it was because of your skill in the art of flying an aircraft that one hundred and eighty-four lives were saved. Your heroic deed differs from that of Manaf’s and Mukhtar’s, given that you had an incentive to land your aircraft safely. Your arse Darius, you wanted to save your own arse, which in the circumstances is understandable. However, it must have taken great courage to land that bird, and the way you were treated by your employers was disgraceful. You turned to the bottle and refused to accept payment from Apollo Airlines. I admire that. It’s good to see that you’ve given up the demon drink... Tell me, Darius, would you be willing to accept my donation of one million pounds?”
The trembling man loosened his tie. “I have no quibble with you, Mr O’Hara and you never ridiculed me as my employers did.”
“I assume that’s a yes?” asked O’Hara.
The former pilot nodded.
O’Hara left his throne and his three guests rose to their feet, such was the dominant presence of their host. “Chaplin, would you come with me please? Gentlemen, refresh your drinks. We’ll return shortly.”
Chaplin followed in the footsteps of O’Hara, who led him to a secluded garden. The rain still fell, but O’Hara was oblivious to the horrible weather. He stepped into a huge greenhouse and proceeded to water his plants.
“Manaf and Kannellakis I like. This Mukhtar is too cocky, and if he’s deprived, then I’m a blind man... This Lance Peebles the Red Cross man; how well do you know him?”
“I went to school with him... Lance is as straight as...”
O’Hara raised his hand and Chaplin knew he had said too much.
“Chaplin, I have a knack of knowing if someone is lying to me. Now look into my eyes and tell me that Lance Peebles knew nothing of the money I was donating.”
The solicitor felt intimidated by the Irishman. “Lance knew nothing of the money. Mukhtar was brought up in conversation and I realised the opportunity he presented.”
“So a mere coincidence, eh? You were looking for a hero and Lance Peebles offered you one on the plate.”
Chaplin felt his bulging Adam’s apple growing. “I swear to you it was just a coincidence.”
O’Hara stared menacingly into the eyes of Chaplin and took a long draw on his cigar. “If I agreed to pay Mukhtar, and I did find out that this was a scam put together by you, Peebles and the paki, you do realise the consequences you face, I gather?”
“I resent your accusation, Mr O’Hara. If you wish to terminate my services, then I’ll gladly return your fee.”
“Implications, Mr Chaplin, not accusations but implications. A learned man such as yourself surprises me by the misuse of grammar... I believe you’re telling the truth, Chaplin... Prepare for a press conference Monday morning will you?”
“You accept the three applicants?” quizzed Chaplin.
O’Hara grasped the shoulders of the solicitor. “You’re learning, Chaplin, by God, you’re learning.