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Down Among the Dead Men
LONDON AND KATHMANDU – 1978
I knew nothing of this exchange on the Hungarian frontier – neither when it happened nor, six years later, when I noticed the panicky telegram from Kathmandu. I was not to discover that the two were connected until months later.
I read the telegram again. It had caught my eye, in the massive daily bundle, only because it was marked 'Secret' – ridiculously over-classified. It was signed by someone called Slater. I looked him up in the list. There were only three diplomatic staff at the Embassy in Nepal and Slater was the first secretary. Normally all telegrams would be signed by the ambassador, but perhaps he was on leave. I was tempted to ignore the flimsy piece of paper and pass on. There were dozens more to read and it was no threat to British interests if the odd Chinese merchant was murdered in a dirty little town in the Himalayas. But I was worried about Chinese infiltration into Nepal and I had a hunch that this telegram might lead me somewhere. At least it might be worth finding out a little more – and I knew just the man to do that.
* * *
Donald Slater had a hangover, which the breeze from the electric fan by the open french doors was gradually curing. When the phone rang he picked it up quickly, to stop the noise which reverberated painfully through his head.
'Namaste, sahib,' said the ingratiating voice of Madan Singh from the porter's desk in the front hall. 'There is a gentleman on the telephone for you.'
'He did not say, sahib.'
'Well, didn't you bloody well ask him?'
'He is English, sahib,' replied Madan Singh, as if that were more than sufficient.
'Oh, very well, put him through.'
The voice spoke good English, but with an accent Slater could not place. 'I think you are expecting me,' it said. 'You will recall the reply to your recent telegram 2405. It said I would introduce myself as "Carew" – from the audit department.'
'Carew?' Slater was more befuddled than usual. 'What audit department?'
'The audit department in London, of course.' The voice paused, as if waiting for a response. Finally it prompted, 'The telegram also mentioned a piece of popular verse.'
'What the hell are you on about?'
'There's a green-eyed yellow idol ... to the north of Kathmandu ...' 'Oh Carew – Mad Carew. I see.' Slater groaned as he remembered:
Investigator will identify himself with following phrases ... Bloody spooks and their Boy Scout passwords. 'You must be ...' The voice cut in sharply. 'Yes.'
'Ah well – glad you're here. I'd have met you at the airport, but we didn't know when you were coming. Do you have a place to stay? I suppose you'll want to come over to the Embassy. How about three this afternoon?'
'Three? It would be useful to start at once if possible. It's ten now – are you tied up till three?'
Slater flicked the empty pages of his diary. His sole objective of the day had been to bum a free lunch at the Yak and Yeti off the Japanese Trade Counsellor. This bloody spook could ruin it. 'Got a very important lunch date,' he said. 'Economic side of the house – not your line of country, of course.' He laughed heartily.
'Perhaps we could get together now, then. Say in thirty minutes? At the Monkey Temple?'
'At the Monkey Temple? What the hell's wrong with the Embassy?'
'I'd prefer not to be connected with the Embassy at this stage. This is a small city. The temple is quiet – and out of town.' The voice had a sense of easy authority. 'I'm sure you understand.'
'Oh quite. Quite. Very cloak and dagger. Well, it's difficult – but I can just fit you in now. In thirty minutes, then.' Slater slammed the phone back on its rest. Bugger the man. He'd have to rush like hell to get back in time for lunch. Bloody security people were all the same: shits.
He got up from his standard issue metal desk, kicked it and stamped out of the office. As he slammed the door, his black and white reproduction of Annigoni's portrait of the Queen fell from its precarious nail on the wall and landed on the floor in a circle of shattered glass.
* * *
Slater climbed into the Embassy's Land-Rover and picked his way through the street markets, out into the rock-strewn countryside. Women were working in the fields, threshing corn by beating the yellow sheaves on flat stones. There was not long now to finish harvesting before the monsoon.
The Monkey Temple was on a hill five miles outside the city. Slater parked the Land-Rover by the white and gold pagoda at the gateway. He made his way up a winding path, shaded by juniper trees. Every few yards he was accosted by a beggar. An old woman with a disjointed leg, grabbing at him with a wooden crutch. A blind man, squatting with hands stretched out for alms. 'Paisa! Baksheesh!' A boy with a withered arm, naked except for a shirt tied between his bony legs.
Slater brushed them aside irritably. At the top of the hill he was drenched in sweat from the heat, his linen suit stained with wet patches across the shoulders. He reflected how unsuited he was to Nepal. Why the hell couldn't they have sent him to Washington or Bonn? Somebody else might have actually enjoyed this ghastly place. The peeling stucco villa they called an embassy. The poverty. The filthy climate.
The temple centred round a massive Stupa, a conical stone mound fifty feet high, topped by a golden spire. At the base of the spire four pairs of painted eyes, the all-seeing eyes of Buddha, looked out at the four points of the compass: over the clustered brown city five miles away, on towards the snowy crags of the Himalayas.
The Stupa rose from a wide paved terrace. At some points this ended in a balustrade overlooking the valley. At others, it was edged by the stone chapels and cells of the lamas. Rows of prayer wheels turned slowly on wrought-iron brackets. Shaven-headed monks in saffron and red robes shuffled gravely between the buildings. One chapel had a richly decorated gilt doorway. From inside came the deep-throated rumble of Tibetan chanting, punctuated by the clash of gongs and blare of trumpets to drive away evil spirits. A large brass Buddha could be seen through the doorway, foul-smelling butter lamps burning before it.
Monkeys ran across the terrace in clusters, chasing nuts thrown to them by a handful of European tourists. There was nobody who looked like a security investigator from the Foreign Office. Slater lit a cigarette, irritably.
'Mr. Slater?' The voice came from behind and made him jump. He turned round and started. The owner of the voice was Chinese.
'Who the hell are you?' snapped Slater.
The man's eyes twinkled. 'I'm the person you are expecting. Well – perhaps not exactly what you were expecting. I have been sent from Hong Kong. If I recall correctly, the man who was the subject of your telegram was from the city's Chinese community? It was thought I might have certain advantages over a European.'
It was eerie. His English was perfect, although oddly stilted and pedantic, as if he had not grown up speaking it, but taught himself later in life – and mainly from books. He was very tall for a Chinese, about six feet, with broad, lined features and greying hair swept back from a high forehead. His eyes were always on the verge of smiling.
'Have you some means of identification?' demanded Slater, radiating tight-lipped disapproval.
'Of course.' The man handed over a blue envelope with a lion and unicorn crest die-stamped on the back. Slater pulled out a letter. It introduced the bearer as a Foreign Office auditor – just as my telegram had said it would. He read it twice and handed it back.
'I suppose that's all right. The letter says your real name's Foo?' 'Benjamin Foo.'
'Well, Foo, it's most irregular, meeting in a place like this. You ought to have reported to me at the Embassy in my capacity as Head of Chancery. It really is a bit much, getting your senior officer to traipse all over town for your convenience.' Slater put in the 'senior officer' bit with venom. He knew it wasn't true. The man had been described in the blue letter as 'B. J. Foo, CMG' – an honour Slater didn't expect to get for another twenty years, if ever – and then only after his promotion to counsellor.
'I'm very sorry, but it seemed best in the circumstances.' Foo led the way to a bench supported by two stone dragons. It was in a shady corner looking out towards the mountains. His age must have been between forty-five and fifty, but he moved like a young man, an athlete. 'Perhaps we could sit down and you would tell me about – well, everything which led up to your sending the telegram four days ago?' Slater was about to snap that it would soon be lunchtime and he could do with a cold beer, not farting around in a stinking Buddhist temple. But there was something in Foo's bearing which stopped him. Slater felt that, despite the smiling eyes and the grave courtesy, this bastard could see right through him. It made him uncomfortable, and he sat down crossly.
* * *
It had started just as the Monkey Temple meeting had, said Slater, with Madan Singh putting through a phone call in his ponderous way. Eight days ago. This time the voice had been Chinese. 'Oh sorry. Of course, I suppose you're Chinese, but this bloke sounded Chinese. And very quiet, as if he might be overheard – very frightened.'
'Must see you urgently, very urgently,' he had whispered. 'Today, somewhere private, not office.' They had arranged to meet at seven in the evening, at a shrine on the Kodari road.
'Where was it exactly?' asked Foo.
'At a lonely spot about six miles out of town, very isolated – it was his idea. I can show you, if you want.'
'And he said he had something important to tell you? Intelligence information?'
'But gave no details?'
'And wouldn't give his name?'
'What happened then?'
Slater had stayed in his office till about five. It had been a lousy day. Consular work. Four blokes who wanted to join the Gurkhas had turned up after a week's walk from their village in the Himalayas. None of them spoke English. It had taken him hours to fill in the forms. Then the police had called him down to the jail to see a pair of Welsh girls they'd arrested for smuggling marijuana. All long hair, granny spectacles and Indian beads. No tits. Hippies.
After leaving the jail he'd driven straight out to the shrine in the Land-Rover and waited an hour.
'Not a soul. The road was completely deserted. Nobody even walked past. I didn't see anything all the time I was there, except a few goats and a couple of sacred cows out for a stroll.'
'So you went home?'
'Yes. Put a note on the Intelligence file next day and forgot it. Frankly, it didn't seem to matter much. Queer things often happen here. Can't imagine why they've troubled to send you, really.'
'Partly because your telegram sounded so panic —, so worried – and because the man was Chinese. We're interested in the intentions of Red China here; they've got so much influence in Nepal now. Think of all the aid they've channelled in – the power stations they've built up on the mountain rivers, that incredible road they've driven through the Himalayas from Lhasa to Kathmandu. We wonder what they're up to. The Indian government is scared as hell.'
'Can't say I've given it much thought. They don't often give parties at the Chinese Embassy – funny-looking lot, too, all going around in those grey uniforms.'
Foo laughed. 'And to make it worse we all look the same to you, I suppose – as Europeans do to us! So you went home and that was the end of the story, or so it seemed?'
'Absolutely. Then last Thursday I went to this jolly at the Nepalese Cultural Society. Took the wife. Folk dances and a bloody good free buffet afterwards. About half past nine the Embassy guard got me on the blower. Fellow from the police wanted to see me or Freddy at once.' Slater liked to demonstrate his familiarity by referring to the ambassador as Freddy. It summed up his basic view that Kathmandu was, quite frankly, beneath him.
He had finished his wine at leisure and strolled out into the dark drive of the Hotel Annapurna. The police officer had stayed outside discreetly and did not complain at being kept waiting for half an hour. He was standing by a car, his brown face visible in the light from the cast-iron lamp standards.
'Inspector Durba Deep, sir.' He had saluted courteously. 'City police. I am so sorry to trouble you, but could you possibly spare me just long enough to,' he paused apologetically, 'identify a corpse, sir. It is a murder. I think you may know the victim.'
Slater had laughed. 'Good God, man. Why me?
Most unlikely! It's not somebody British, is it?' 'No, sir, the victim was not a European.'
'Oh really, this is too ridiculous. And I am rather busy just now. Can't it wait till morning?'
'I would prefer not to wait, sir. This is a murder investigation. I should be most grateful for your co-operation.'
'Oh, very well.' Slater brushed rudely past the policeman and slumped in the back of the car. He felt slightly drunk. He had grabbed a series of whiskies before starting on the buffet, when he had mixed red wine and the local Star beer. He could feel it all swilling about with curried chicken in his stomach. It was horrible. As the car sped through the dark alleys, he wished he had refused to come.
They did not go to the police station but to the Bir hospital. Slater grinned vaguely at a group of pretty Nepali nurses as he followed the inspector to a steel door with a temperature gauge on it.
The mortuary was very cold. The body lay on a stone table, covered with a sheet. Inspector Deep drew the sheet aside.
Slater cried out in horror, before he turned away and vomited. A young constable in uniform, who had followed them in, helped him to a chair.
The dead man was Chinese: his face contorted in agony, as if he were still screaming. There were two empty red sockets where the eyes had been. The rest of the corpse had been mutilated viciously.
Slater swayed as he looked at the blackened stumps of fingers, the burns an inch or so across all over the body, the slashed flesh and caked blood where the genitals had been. 'Jesus Christ,' he breathed. 'Poor bastard. They must have taken hours to kill him.'
'Days,' said the inspector. 'Do you know him?'
'Dear God, of course I don't!' Slater pulled himself together and stood up. 'And what the hell d'you think you're doing involving a foreign diplomat in this kind of thing?'
'You don't know him? You're quite sure?'
'No, of course I don't,' snapped Slater. He was furious with himself for puking; venting his anger on the policeman seemed the best way of covering it up. 'And you really have no right to bring me here! The Foreign Minister will hear of this tomorrow, I promise you!'
'Forgive me. It must be distressing and I apologise. I just thought you might know him.' The young Nepali had soft brown eyes, highly intelligent, which met Slater's bloodshot stare levelly. 'You see, the body was found as you see it, naked, in an alley in the old city of Patan. The clothes were nearby, with nothing in the pockets except this.' He pulled a scrap of white paper from his pocket. 'On it there is the number 11588 – your Embassy's telephone number – and your name, Mr. Slater.'CHAPTER 2
I put down Foo's report and walked over to the window. The office was on the fifth floor, looking out across the rusty tracks of a disused railway siding. I had only been back a few weeks, after four years in Tokyo, and it was furnished exactly as I had inherited it. There was a modern desk and a matching conference table with six chairs, all in light wood: the same furniture which would be found in the offices of middle-ranking civil servants all down Whitehall and in tax offices all over Britain. The rest of the room was a generation older, as if the Ministry of Works had changed the desk and table but nothing else: two massive green leather armchairs by a mahogany coffee table, some Second World War filing cabinets, a map of the world which had been out of date in 1918, a Victorian clock.
But I had inherited more than the furniture. The Far East was a difficult manor – and Foo was one of the better things about it, although there had always been a certain elusiveness about him. But perhaps that could be put down to his background. His father had been a merchant in Shanghai, who fell foul of the Communists in the thirties. The whole family had died in the civil war and the Japanese invasion – except Foo, who had set out on his own Long March south in 1947, wandering the ravaged countryside for over a year, until he escaped across the frontier into Hong Kong.
He had been only nineteen – and penniless – when he arrived, and fought to build a new life in the squalor of the Kowloon slums. He still bore their scars, but within ten years he had become a prosperous exporter and a British citizen. For over twenty years now he had also been a valuable intelligence officer: for eight of them, head of the Hong Kong station. Maybe I was wasting his time in Kathmandu. Was this just a Triad revenge killing – or did it matter? Had the dead man, whoever he was, something important to tell us?