‘Because, because, because, Simon, you know about deaths in the Service.’
‘So do you. So do most of us.’
‘So I do. So we do,’ Latimer said. ‘But what you know is… oh, call it particular. Yes, that. Unique to you. Personal to you.’
‘Don’t see it.’
‘Of course you see it. You know about deaths in the Service, which would admittedly be routine enough, and would probably be so in any country’s Intelligence Service. But, more important, you know about deaths in this Service brought about by people in this Service. And, to focus tighter, you know about deaths in this Section of the Service, brought about by people in this Section of the Service – in the Outfit, as we lovingly call our Section. Such knowledge is special. Now, surely you’d admit that. In-house deaths. 1997. Those terrible days when the terrible, terrible spring-cleaning happened.
‘But so do you know about them. So do most of us,’ Abelard replied.
‘So I do. So we do. But you, Simon, were close to these killings. Remarkably close.’
‘Just close. To some of them.’
‘Remarkably close. And to the most important ones. You’re our expert on colleague snuffing colleague. Oh, on other facets of Intelligence operations, also, but above all on the appalling hates and rivalries that can arise in our Section of Her Majesty’s Intelligence and Security Services.’
‘A long time ago.’
‘A while ago.’
‘And an accident.’
‘What?’ Latimer asked. ‘Not the death, deaths? You’re not saying those deaths – Julian Bowling, Verdun Cadwallader – were an—?’
‘No. An accident that I was close to.’
‘I thought… I thought…’ Turkey Latimer let laughter give him a truly disabling time for a minute, his face gorgeously merry, his body mildly convulsed… ‘I thought you were saying the death, deaths, themselves should be regarded as accidents. That would be some claim, now wouldn’t it? In the circs.’
‘I meant it was a fluke I happened to be close.’
‘But an accident,’ Abelard replied.
‘Oh, certainly. Would I say otherwise – or allow anyone else to say otherwise about you? No imputation of involvement in the death, deaths. Nothing like that. I would definitely fight anyone who said that about you.’
Latimer worked at some precision: ‘I wouldn’t call it so much an accident as brilliantly fortunate chance. Does that sound callous? I suppose it might. Look, Simon, I don’t refer to the deaths themselves, Bowling’s, Cadwallader’s, as fortunate chance. Obviously. These were colleagues, after all, and in some very real sense, friends. I hope I’d never speak casually of the slaughter of such folk, no matter what the usefulness might have been to the Outfit and us in and of the Outfit. Remember that kindly phrase they had in the Indian army, “He was of use”– meaning a man had died actually on the battle field? Empire understatement. Sublime. But forgive a digression, do. No, no, I was saying only that your closeness to these awful events was a fortunate chance, Simon. It qualifies you, you see, is enabling. You are bound to have unique insights, supremely valuable insights, given the new situation. This bloody book situation.’
‘In which very real sense were the dead’s friends?’ Abelard replied.
‘Yes, friends. I feel you wouldn’t argue with that. Colleagues one had worked with for quite long periods and in some senses trusted and admired. I certainly don’t believe “friends” is too personal a term, do you?’
‘In which senses were they trusted and admired?’
‘People removed so – there’s bound to be a gap, isn’t there, Simon? Oh, that was generally feared, I’m sure. Well, we recovered, didn’t we? The grief faded, as grief will, and the Outfit survived, as the Outfit does. August 2001 and we look as settled and fit as any Section can, these thin and purposeless days. But now… now the rather awkward possibility of a revisit to those bad, internecine times. Why I refer to you rather briskly, perhaps, as an expert. Brisk or not, we do need an expert, Simon. None of us wants the unpleasantnesses of that era given a foul re-airing in print, I know. You wouldn’t wish this yourself, I’m convinced. My impression, and not merely mine – several of us – yes, we do believe you’re the one to stop this damn book. And probably the only one.’
‘Oh, I’d call it a consensus. Nothing less. I don’t see that as an exaggeration. There’s a warm, all-round faith in your delicacy, tact and yet forcefulness as a considerable Outfit officer.’
‘Which of those?’
‘Which of those what?’ Latimer said.
‘Which of delicacy, tact and forcefulness is a matter for their all-round faith?’
‘All of them. Or permutations. Everyone in the Outfit shares a truly heartening certainty, Simon, that, with your beautifully developed flair and unwavering regard for what is right or rightish you can truly shut this fucking shithouse down double quick or sooner.’
‘In what sense shut this fucking shithouse down?’
‘Exactly. Shut him down. It’s brilliant and comforting how you hit on a phrase.’
‘Which we is this?’
‘Which we in what context?’ Latimer replied.
‘Which we share the heartening certainty I can do it?’
‘Exactly. Yes, shut him down. It’s a comfort that I can report back you’re so ready to handle this, Simon. But, then, nobody would expect less of you.’
‘Report back where?’
‘People will be delighted to hear you came up with the phrase for this operation: “shut him down.” Shows an instant, indeed instinctive, mastery of what’s wanted.’
‘Will I get back-up?’ Abelard replied.
‘And, you see, if this works all right, it should convince others not to try a similar literary thing. That’s the real objective. Alleged exposé volumes coming out in clumps, like May violets. Do we want this kind of damaging crud across the Press every couple of months, for God’s sake? Damned rough, obscenely well-informed questions in the Commons about our command structure and budget and raison de fucking être’.
‘When I say back-up, he’s bound to realise he’s vulnerable. He might have bought himself protection. He’d probably have money for that now. Might be a condition of the contract with his publishers. I’d make the approach to him solo at first, probably.’
‘I’ll be wide open. So, some discreet back-up?’ Abelard said.
‘We don’t want him scared, stampeded, by a bicep crew descending. Those lovely assets of yours already mentioned – delicacy, tact – wouldn’t have a fair run if you were operating with a batch of our Outfit heavies – estimable folk, yes, but heavies. That’s how we see it.’
‘Which we is that?’
‘I heard no dissent at all, as it happens.’
‘But back-up on call?’
‘It’s not for me to tell you how to talk to him,’ Latimer replied. He had another laugh, now at the preposterousness of this idea. ‘That would be in contradiction of everything we’ve spoken about. It’s you who have the delicacy and tact, and you must clearly be left to exercise these as you, personally, decide. Could I instruct you in the nitty gritty, for heaven’s sake!’ He chuckled a little more. ‘Just this, though, Si – he needs to understand – he and his fucking intellectualising wife – they both need to pick up unmistakably from what you in your delicate, tactful way tell him – they need to cotton on that not everyone in the Outfit or the rest of the Service is like yourself, like myself, and able to behave with decent restraint and control, despite the damn purple threat to many – oh, yes, many – in the prospect of this book. All our people have certainly been trained in decent restraint and control, but situations may arrive where, for some – I say some – for some that decent restraint and control can collapse. Their reactions may then become vivid and extreme, and entirely unforgiving. The fact that decent restraint and control have to be trained into them – have to be trained into us, I don’t deny – the fact that we have to be trained in these qualities indicates doesn’t it, that they are not necessarily natural? Under provocation some people can revert. This is the hazard they should be made to see.’
‘Threaten him, them, that some of our frontline boys might get ungovernably wild? Poor reflection on leadership, isn’t it?’ Abelard asked. ‘You’d give them the quiet nod to do him because of a book?’
‘The pen can be shittier than the sword. Let them know how much we’d hate it if they turned themselves into targets for the sake of a bit of scribbling.’
‘He must have considered all this and still decided to proceed with the book,’ Abelard replied.
‘We feel that a cogently phrased warning from someone like you would have a notable impact,’ Latimer said.
‘What’s it mean, someone like me?’
‘The delicacy and tact, plus forcefulness – forcefulness when necessary. If a really fucking terrifying warning to someone comes out of a conversation notable otherwise only for delicacy and tact, this can be wonderfully telling, not just because of the shock element, but because this delicacy and tact will have shown that you are a sensitive person, Simon, and seek only the improvement of Mankind. He’d know that, anyway, from past acquaintance, but your behaviour now would confirm this. It makes the harshness of the underlying message so much more acceptable, so much more credible, so much more, yes, forceful.’
‘He might have been put up to writing the book by all sorts of enemies wanting to damage the Outfit. These enemies could have units around, looking after him. That’s standard, isn’t it? I feel I should be able to call on immediate help if things go bandy.’
‘Plus, another considerable plus is your blackness,’ Latimer replied.
‘How does that come into it.’
‘Many people seem to think that a black speaking with sincerity sounds more sincere than a white speaking with sincerity – like Paul Robeson singing Ole Man River. I don’t say I agree. It sounds racist to me – anti-white. But it is the view of some, so we would be dim to ignore this.’
‘Which we is that?’
‘Oh, you and I, Simon.’