“He’s a terrific chap, Ronny. I’m really very fond of him, you know,” Cuthbert said.
“And so am I, Milton. I’m afraid your ruse didn’t work. It was you alerted the Commie coastguards, I take it?”
“My people were listening to Chan’s radio. It seemed like a chance worth taking. Without those heads the investigation would have ground to a halt. Now…” He raised his arms, let them drop, shook his head. “Damn and blast!”
“Those Red coastguards have always been the lowest of the low. They’re all as bent as a two-bob watch. Look, I hope you didn’t think I went too far tonight, playing devil’s advocate?”
“Certainly not. You summoned exactly the right amount of verisimilitude. We can’t have them thinking we’re ganging up on them at this stage.”
“This Charlie Chan-a problem?”
Cuthbert shrugged. “I really don’t know. He sounds too good for what we want. And then there was a little thing Ronny conveniently left out. You remember that old chap who’s trying to raise awareness about laogai? The one we were thinking of deporting last year, until the press got hold of the story and some damned busybody MP threatened to ask a question in Parliament?”
“Matter of fact I do.”
“Chan vouched for him. The old man instructed lawyers, and the lawyers obtained an affidavit from Chan, who swore he’d known the old man for years and could vouch for his character. My chaps were furious, but Ronny protected his man. Chan hates the Reds all right. Very telling for Ronny to leave it out of Chan’s curriculum vitae.”
“So you do know all about Chan?”
Cuthbert’s eyes darted. “Yes, I do. I didn’t want Ronny to know how closely I’ve been watching him. It seemed important to act ignorant.”
They sat in silence for a minute.
Smith tapped the table. “Just out of curiosity, Milton, how did you swing it with those coastguards?”
“I rang their headquarters, told them to watch out for a Hong Kong police launch chasing a plastic bag.” He smiled. “Piece of cake.”
Cuthbert took out an old silver cigarette case, selected a Turkish cigarette, lit it with a silver butane lighter. In doing so, he illuminated his long face, aquiline nose, case-hardened eyes: the disdainful features of an eagle.
“General Xian. I was phoning from Hong Kong after all. It had to be someone very senior who was based here.”
He produced a long phrase in Mandarin that Caxton Smith didn’t understand. The rough accent of an aging Chinese peasant general was instantly recognizable, however.
Smith shook his head. Ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century when the Great Game of intelligence and counterintelligence operations on the borders between the British Empire and Russia and China had begun, the Oriental Department of the Foreign Office had attracted the brightest and the best-and the most eccentric, men with double firsts from Oxford or Cambridge who behaved as if it were still 1897.
“You’re a damned clever chap, Milton. Damned clever. Of course it was you tapped Chan’s telephone and copied his files?”
Cuthbert inhaled on the fine Turkish tobacco, looked away. “Not clever enough, it seems.” Caxton Smith raised his eyebrows.
With his free hand Cuthbert pinched the narrow bridge of his nose. “I’ve been stalking or shadowing Xian, whichever way you want to put it, for more than half my career. I’ve got taps on his telephones and electronic surveillance to cover him twenty-four hours a day. I was convinced that the general couldn’t eat a spring roll without my knowing about it. But I’m damned if I understand what he’s up to this time.”
“You’re totally convinced he ordered these murders?”
Cuthbert dropped his hand. “No, I’m not. At first I thought that must be the reason he’s so obsessed with Chan’s investigation. Then I began to wonder. What does he care if he gets found out? Nobody’s going to prosecute him. So why the interest in the case? The old boy’s in a frenzy about it. Acting purely on instinct, I’m trying to block the investigation because after thirty years in diplomacy I can smell a scandal when it’s creeping down the Yangtze, and this one is big, whatever it is. In diplomacy, Caxton, a scandal is worse than a holocaust. One hint in the press of what Xian is really doing in Hong Kong, and there’ll be the biggest imaginable row. Can you imagine, eight weeks before handover?”
“Ah! Yes, that would land us in a bit of a pickle. And might one ask, strictly off the record, what exactly Xian is doing in Hong Kong? I think I’ve been wanting to ask you that question for as long as I can remember.”
Cuthbert studied the end of his cigarette. “Off the record, Caxton, he’s taking over whether anyone approves or not, and the West can shove its democracy up its arse. That’s a very rough translation from the Mandarin.” He put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled reflectively. “I couldn’t tell you the precise moment when my career became devoted to the study of General Xian. China was my business, with particular reference to Hong Kong. At first all one did was watch Beijing and read all the diplomatic dispatches. Then things began to fall apart, Chinese style. That is to say, you wouldn’t have known they were falling apart except for the subtlest signals that China watchers look for. Little by little Beijing was less powerful; there were centers of power elsewhere in the country; people began to talk about a return to the old warlord system. Xian is an extremely secretive man. By the time it became clear that he was a major player, he was already in control of most of southern China. Not officially in control, of course, but he more or less runs the place. All the senior cadres answer to him, and in a fight his troops would side with him against Beijing-which is why Beijing leaves him alone. China wasn’t my business anymore, he was.”