Cuthbert found out when the military flight was due to land and sent two cars to pick the men up. Of the five, four would be dropped at their quarters in Stanley, and the last, the most senior, was to be brought direct to Cuthbert’s office. The political adviser was still debating what tack to use when his secretary showed Major Fairgood in. Cuthbert shook hands with a stereotype: fit as an athlete with something lethal around the eyes; square jaws with lean cheeks in which a single furrow had been plowed from cheekbone to just behind the mouth. Cuthbert saw the suspicion that soldiers habitually feel toward diplomats. In Fairgood’s case it took the form of an almost theatrical squinting combined with a disdainful twitch of the nose.
Cuthbert invited the soldier to sit at the long table in his anteroom.
“Good of you to see me. I do apologize for taking up your time when you must want to be settling in.”
“No problem. Not a complex job as far as I can see. Not a lot of settling in to do. We’ll be done this time tomorrow, I expect.”
“Quite. That’s rather what I wanted to discuss. I don’t know if the commander in chief has spoken to you?”
“No, how could he?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Something came over the radio, though, while we were in the air. It doesn’t take much to guess what you want.”
“But it can’t be done. You must have heard about Gibraltar?”
“That was orders. Between you and me.”
“If I remember correctly, some known Irish Republican Army assassins were, er, killed by SAS men. The IRA had a car full of explosives but were themselves unarmed.”
“Someone very senior thought it would be nice if those particular IRA terrorists never had to stand trial. They never reckoned for the media frenzy. A bloody trial for manslaughter in Gib-SAS men! We’re never supposed to see the light of day. Bloody fiasco. Some of the blokes nearly resigned. Men like you are supposed to keep us out of politics-and the newspapers. And the courts, especially the courts.”
“I absolutely agree.”
“Now there’s an appeal to the European Court at Strasbourg by families of the IRA bastards we shot. It never ends, that sort of thing.”
Cuthbert took out his silver cigarette case, which he offered to Fairgood, whose fuse seemed to have burned itself out. To his surprise the superfit major accepted it gratefully.
“Of course, if circumstances were different,” Cuthbert said, “and if there were good reason…”
“It would take more than a ten-minute chat with a diplomat to convince me to risk putting my men through that, I can tell you.”
Cuthbert smiled through the tobacco smoke. “Well, let me confess, Major, I don’t blame you. I’m deeply grateful that you came to see me, and I shan’t attempt to persuade you further. You realize that it was my duty to try-in the interests of national security, of course.”
Suprised at being let off the hook so easily, Fairgood coughed on an inhalation. He stared at Cuthbert for a moment, then inhaled deeply. “You’re doing your job, I can see that. And I’m doing mine.”
The diplomat noticed a change in posture. Fairgood stretched his legs under the table, leaned back in the chair. For the first time since entering the room he seemed relaxed.
“Right then,” Fairgood said. His eyes flicked over the room before settling on the window. “Good view.”
“One of the best. Let me show you.”
Fairgood stood up with Cuthbert and went to the window. “There’s the airport runway; that’s a Cathay flight taking off. Just behind, d’you see? the hills of Kowloon. And behind them, China.”
Fairgood took it all in as if studying a battlefield. “Yes, that must be right. One knows how close it is, but one doesn’t quite take it in until one arrives on the ground. They say that all the really big disasters of the next hundred years will probably be caused by China.”
He smiled without warmth, finished his cigarette slowly, went back to the table to find an ashtray, drummed thoughtfully on the top.
“Just out of interest, why?”
“Partly because if there’s a trial, there’ll be a huge bloody public row, partly because it will jeopardize relations between China and Hong Kong and partly, I confess, a measure of personal sentiment.”
“Radiation sickness is horrifying. There’s no other word for it.”
“Yes, I heard something about that. No danger for my chaps, I hope?”
“None at all as far as I can gather. The damnable part, though, is that these three will probably get off. There’s only circumstantial evidence to link them to the uranium.”
“Murder. Look, just as background, let me show you something.”
Cuthbert went to his office and returned with some photographs. He began with the two divers in the hospital. Higgins he saved to last. He watched Fairgood dwell on that one: an Englishman, a white man, fair-skinned, about his age, his body bloated and distorted like some monstrous sea creature. Fairgood nodded slowly, whistled.
“I see.” He raised his eyes. Cuthbert’s stratagem was pretty crude after all. “Well, I’d better be going.”
“Of course,” Cuthbert said. “Take the pictures if you like. Your men might want to know the kind of people they’re dealing with.”
Fairgood nodded again. “Just the one will do.” He picked up the picture of Higgins, slid it into a pocket.
On his way out Fairgood said: “Even if the men were sympathetic, which is by no means certain, there would have to be a cast-iron guarantee of no publicity and no repercussions-especially not legal ones. Cast-iron.”
Cuthbert smiled again. “This isn’t Gibraltar, Major. On important issues the media do as we tell them over here. And these three are supposed to be dead already.” Fairgood raised his eyebrows. “You have my word,” Cuthbert said.
They shook hands at the door.