Operation Saladin Excerpts

Chapter 3

Fred Thompson, in baggy cotton pajamas and a silk polka-dot dressing gown, was not his usual calm self. He had been woken by heavy banging on his door. He looked over at his sleeping wife and then at the luminous alarm clock. It was 2.15 a.m., and he wondered what the hell was going on. Vaux stood before him, his face sweating and his hair still disheveled after the shower at Alena’s place. He seemed short of breath and Thompson beckoned him into the lobby.

‘I’m in a bit of a jam, Fred. Can we talk?’

‘Of course, old man. Let’s go into the dining room.’ He led the way, opened a frosted-glass double door, and sat at the head of a long travertine table. He signaled Vaux to sit opposite him at the other end.

‘Shoot, as they used to say in Hollywood.’ Vaux detected a slight impatience in Thomson’s attitude and tone, but he couldn’t blame the man, having disturbed him in the early hours.

‘This may sound odd, Fred, but I have no one else to turn to.’

‘Get on with it, old man. What the hell’s going on?’

‘I had a flaming row tonight with Alena.’

Thomson now looked more relaxed. He liked Alena, and she often came round with Vaux for dinner and the odd cocktail party. He and Margaret, his wife of thirty years, had been to her place in Gezira. But he knew Alena’s official position at the Syrian embassy was a cover, and he often wondered whether Vaux was getting hopelessly entangled in his relationship with Syria—the newspaper he worked for, his close friend Ahmed and his lover Alena. He knew he was being very British about all this. But that’s who he was—as he told his wife when she berated him for his concern for Michael and his future.

‘A domestic tiff? Dear me, Michael. You interrupt my beauty sleep because of a mere contretemps with beautiful, young Alena. I’m surprised you’re not falling out all the time. The age difference always bothered me, you know.’

Thompson wished he hadn’t said that but guessed the sleeping pill he always took lowered his guard.

‘It’s not just any old row, Fred. I need some serious help.’

Vaux then told Fred Thompson the whole story: Ahmed Kadri’s sudden disappearance and likely arrest, Syria’s Interior Ministry demanding his return to Damascus, and the imminent cancellation of his resident’s permit in Egypt. To punctuate Vaux’s report, Thompson got up and poured two large shots of scotch from the drink trolley and slid a small plate of nuts and raisins up the table toward him. He listened intently to what Vaux told him, and he noticed that Vaux omitted to mention anything about Alena’s real job. He couldn’t let him know that he was perfectly aware that she was the local deputy station chief of Syria’s GSD.

Thompson leaned back on the fragile antique Windsor chair his wife had recently bought at the old Khan al-Khalili souk. Like Vaux, he hadn’t given up cigarettes and was stubbing out his fifth Cleopatra when he realized Vaux had finished talking and was waiting for some sort of reaction from him.

‘Don’t like the sound of all this, Michael. I’m thinking of you now—not Alena, not Kadri. You’ve reached a point when you’ve got to act quickly and save your own skin. Okay? They obviously want you back there for a full inquisition. And that’s the last thing you want. Ahmed’s got enemies in Damascus and the new regime has apparently chosen to believe this other man’s story. You yourself admit that you aided and abetted Ahmed Kadri in the ruse that cost this man’s career. In retrospect, don’t you think Kadri was being overly vengeful?’

‘Ahmed was hurt. He was loyal to the regime, and he was suddenly sent packing—not on any substantiated charges, but on the basis that a couple of Alawite colleagues didn’t like the cut of his jib, if you will. He’s a Sunni and it was one of those periodic purges of the Sunnis. These two characters who were instrumental in his firing are primitive types. They hated him for his Western education, his Western suits, his taste for jazz and booze, and even, I suppose, his Western friends—all the things I liked about him.’

‘I don’t think our friends in Damascus would understand the jib analogy—much too English and nautical. But I see what you’re getting at.’

Thompson got up and placed his empty glass on the drink trolley. He had heard enough and wanted to get back to bed and sleep on it.

‘Look, there’s a couch in the living room. Put your head down, and I’ll sort all this out tomorrow.

***

Vaux waited outside the coffee shop in the main hall of Ramses Station, Cairo’s cavernous main railway terminal. It was 10:00 a.m.—too early for him to appreciate the piped, repetitive Arab music that rose above the tumultuous din of trains arriving and departing and the shouts and excited chatter of people about to embark on long journeys to Egypt’s southern reaches and beyond. In a few brief words, Thompson had given him instructions to meet a Mr. Adams who would be able to assist him in the days ahead. Thompson then left his apartment for the Cairo News offices, and Vaux was left to make small talk with Margaret over several cups of café crème and a few dry croissants. She was Irish and looked slightly worn and tired, no doubt the cost of spending one’s life with a Brit whose first love was journalism and whose second passion was living far from the drizzle and dark days of the England he loved to hate. Vaux had no idea who Mr. Adams was, but he was encouraged by the Englishness of the name. At his most pessimistic, he thought Adams could be a travel agent, someone who worked for American Express or Thomas Cook. Or he could be some old crony of Thompson’s, a Mr. Fixit who handled the messes and crises expats often got into.

In a low, hushed voice, Thompson had also told Vaux that Adams would be wearing gray worsted trousers, a blue blazer with college insignia on the breast pocket, and a straw panama. He would be seated at one of the tables near the long bar, and he would be reading the latest Paris edition of the Herald Tribune

Vaux spotted him through the smudged grime of the windows. He pushed open the double doors, walked over to the long bar and ordered a black coffee. Adams was engrossed in the newspaper, but Vaux noted the gold-braided college coat-of-arms and the panama which hung from the back of the rattan chair. He sat down beside the man, who faked surprise, and then they both shook hands vigorously, just like old friends. He was a tall, slim man in his mid-forties, with a bald head and horn-rimmed glasses. Adams folded the big broadsheet into a more manageable package and launched into what his department called an ‘emergency exit plan.’

An open window just above their heads let in wafts of diesel-scented humid air, and the thundering noise from the revved-up engine of the train waiting on Platform 1, adjacent to the coffee shop, muffled Adams’s voice. Even so, he mumbled his words so that only Vaux could possibly hear him.

‘Look, I know your problem—let’s leave it at that. I can tell you that the local police were waiting for you at your apartment last night, so you did the right thing to avoid them. It was nothing sinister. Your residency permit has been revoked, and they were just doing their job. But our people have been working on this, and if you know what’s best for you, you’ll do as instructed. Our contacts confirm that your Syrian employers want you back in Damascus pronto—and somehow we don’t think it’s to offer you the top job on the Damascus Times. So we want you to get the next train for Alexandria, about an hour from now. It takes about three hours. Travel first class, old boy; then you won’t be hassled by Arab bums or inquisitive railway inspectors. When you get to Alex, you will be met by one of the consulate people. They already know you for some reason. Just do what they say, and you’ll be okay.’

Vaux’s reaction to Adams’s instructions was a mixture of resentment and relief. These people, whoever they were, had arranged a safe exit at the cost of his giving up his cherished sovereignty. But he had no choice. He guessed Adams was from the embassy and delegated to do this sort of thing quite often. But the thought of landing up at the British consulate in Alexandria was almost as bad as sweating it out here in Cairo. He hadn’t had any dealings with British diplomats since he suddenly and arbitrarily left MI6 that later summer in 1992 when he decided on the life-changing move to Damascus, where he hoped to live out his life with Ahmed and Alena. His sudden resignation was greeted with outrage, and his former boss at Department B3, Sir Walter Mason, put out a warrant for his arrest. But then, he figured, he was never going back. Now he felt he was delivering himself once again into the hands of MI6 and the cold creative geniuses who hatched those labyrinthine schemes and gothic plots that so often ended in failure or fiasco.

‘Are you still with me, old man? asked Adams, somewhat put off by Vaux’s air of distraction.

‘Sorry. Yes, of course.’

‘Now, do you have money—enough to buy the rail ticket?’

‘Yes, yes, I think so.’

Adams sighed. ‘This is no time to be vague, Mr. Vaux. Do you or don’t you? He looked around the restaurant to see if anyone was taking an undue interest. At the next table sat a woman covered from head to toe in a black abaya, with her teenage son clad in blue jeans and a T-shirt. There were a few solitary old men nursing their mint teas or coffee, but nobody, in Adams’ eyes, who looked like a dedicated watcher. He quickly produced ten Egyptian twenty-pound notes from his trouser pocket.

‘Here, take this. The fare’s about forty pounds last time I checked.’ Then Adams fished in the inside pocket of his blazer. He produced a rather tattered UK passport.

‘I was told to give this to you. You may find it useful in the days ahead. It’s advisable to get rid of Michael Vaux, if you know what I mean.’

Vaux smiled at this incongruous attempt at humor. But Adams, who now watched Vaux closely, saw the smile evaporate quickly. His face went ‘white as a sheet’, he told his bemused colleagues back in Garden City.

Vaux had looked at the name on the front cover of the worn hardcover passport. Once again, he was Derek Westropp, the alias given him by MI6 when he agreed to do what he thought was a one-off operation in Geneva. A chill passed through him. He thought he had seen his own ghost.