The Maghreb Conspiracy Excerpts

Chapter 4

Michael Vaux lay under a parasol on a sunlounger by the mosaic-tiled swimming pool at the Villa Mauresque, a white stucco cubist building perched on a high cliff that overlooked the Mediterranean to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. He told himself he was living in splendid isolation, and he rather liked it. He missed beautiful and sexy Anne, but if he was true to himself, he had to admit he wanted a cooling-off period. The age gap had always worried him, and his absence could induce her to meet an eligible man her own age.

Safa, Ahmed Kadri’s niece, had inherited the property from her mother who had died of old age at the health clinic on nearby Cap Spartel on the west coast. Vaux had met Safa through Ahmed when, like him, she was a guest at the house in the early nineties. They had a brief fling (Vaux always claimed she started it), and then she had left to further her studies. While at Durham University, she met a young man who was studying medicine, and they got married.

Safa was happy. Paul, her young husband, started out as a GP in a country practice near Aylesbury. She was now working on a PhD program at Queen Mary College in London. She always had fond memories of Vaux and she knew he had been very close to her Syrian diplomat uncle since their university days. They had lost touch over the years, but Vaux renewed the friendship, with MI6’s enthusiastic blessings, when he was hired on the strength of that old relationship to spy on Kadri’s diplomatic mission in Geneva. British intelligence was eager to learn the details of a suspected multi-billion dollar arms deal that was being hatched between Syria and Russia in Geneva behind the smokescreen of yet another Middle East peace conference then underway.

But what had been planned as an almost impromptu vacation with Vaux was cut short by the sudden death of Safa’s husband’s medical partner. Paul had to leave and return to England and Safa, remembering the delicate past, had decided that her duty was to be with him. So Vaux was alone—except for Mahmud, the housekeeper and general factotum, a pool boy and gardener, and the daily cook (when requested).

He put down the latest Cara Black crime mystery and looked through the tall eucalyptus trees to the calm, blue-gray Atlantic. On the horizon, a big oil tanker made its slow progress northward. He heard the phone ringing in the house and wondered whether Mahmud was around to answer it. Then he heard the familiar shuffle of Mahmud’s slip-on leather babouches as he made his way toward the pool.
He reached out for the heavy white telephone. Mahmud plugged in the pool extension line, made a quick bow, and retreated. Vaux was expecting no one to call. But perhaps Safa was anxious about his supposed lonliness. In which case he would assure her he could stay put in these beautiful and balmy surroundings until the earth froze over or burned itself up. But it wasn’t Safa.

A female voice, businesslike, English upper-crust accent. ‘Mr. Vaux? Please hold. It’s the embassy in Rabat.’

A lengthy pause. ‘Hello, Michael?’

‘Yes,’ said Vaux cautiously.

‘It’s your old mate, George Greaves. Remember me?’

‘Of course I do. I thought you’d be retired by now.’

‘No such luck. I’ll probably be here until I drop. Can’t all be rich ex-journalists, you know.’

‘Ex-journalist is right, but not rich,’ said Vaux. ‘Anyhow, you’ve got a good decade or two ahead of you.’

For some years, Greaves had been an undercover MI6 operative who worked out of the British embassy in Rabat under the guise of second commercial secretary. He had recently been promoted to chief of station. They had met back in the nineties when Vaux supplied him with surreptitious recordings of conversations he had had with then-exiled Ahmed Kadri: they included a slew of economic and top-secret military data (including the ongoing manufacture of a whole armory of chemical weapons), an inside view of Hafaz el-Assad’s regime, other facts and figures, and anything of intelligence value about his beloved Syria that had now jilted him.

‘Thanks For that bit of compassion. Look, Vaux, we need your help. I’m coming up there tomorrow and it’s imperative we get together…’

‘But how did you know I was here?’

‘That’s a silly question to ask a type like me.’

‘OK. Well, you know the villa. I’ll expect you when I see you.’

‘Done.’ The phone clicked. No more niceties required. Vaux knew he’d swallowed the bait.

***

Carlos Miranda of the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), Spain’s intelligence agency, sat in a small office whose internal window looked over the large and leafy atrium of Madrid’s main rail terminus. Sebastian Micklethwait, disheveled and unshaven with soiled shirt and baggy traveling jeans, sat opposite the neatly suited CNI operative whose sleek black hair matched the long, curled lashes of his deep brown eyes. On the table as Exhibit One lay the small Glock 32, finally detected in a strip search. Miranda flipped through the pages of Micklethwait’s passport, noted it was brand new, looked at the small photo and then up to the man purporting to be Edward Knight, British citizen.

‘I’m here to tell you you’ve had a break. You are to be released forthwith—I think that’s how they say it in English. Our agencies cooperate well together—especially since last year’s terrorist attack.’

Micklethwait had had no sleep for twenty-four hours, and his thinking was slow, his mind numb. But he recalled the bomb attack at Madrid’s Atochia station the previous July—an outrage that killed nearly two hundred commuters. The perpetrators were first thought to be ETA, the Basque separatist outfit. But it was later confirmed that Islamist terrorists had carried out the operation.

Miranda slid the pistol across the table toward Micklethwait and then handed him over his passport. Micklethwait checked the chamber. The thirteen nine millimeter bullets were intact. ‘On instructions from your London people,’ said Miranda, ‘we have reserved a room at the La Reina Victoria on the Plaza Santa Ana. It’s quite close to the Prado—in case you get bored. You are to stay there until you receive further orders. Is that clear, Mr. Knight?’

‘Yes, perfectly.’ Micklethwait had noticed his holdall and garment bag in the corner of the room behind a door. He stuffed the Glock in the holdall, grabbed the hotel reservation slip proferred by Miranda and left the stifling hot room. A good listener would have heard his huge sigh of relief as he skipped down the escalator to the sun-filled, semi-tropical grand concourse and then to the taxi rank.

***

At about the same time as Micklethwait got out of the taxi that brought him quickly to the Plaza Santa Ana, George Greaves was embracing Michael Vaux like an old friend. Mahmud had brought him to the pool where Vaux had just had a midmorning swim. Mahmud quickly offered Vaux a white terry cloth bathrobe and hovered for further instructions. ‘George, it’s past eleven. So what will you have to drink?’

‘No, it’s still too early for me, old boy. I’ll just have an orange juice, if I may.’

Vaux said he’d have a screwdriver and Mahmud shuffled off to the house. Vaux thought Greaves had changed little. He was heavier than when he first met him and had grown a floppy walrus moustache. He wore a blue, very creased linen suit, English brown suede brogues, and sported the straw panama he had worn when the two agents use to liaise together at a sidewalk café in Tangier in the early nineties. ‘You always said you planned to take early retirement,’ said Vaux, ‘But I see you’re still in the game.’

Something unforeseen happened, old boy. I finally got married. A secretary in the embassy. Charming girl. English to the core. Met her at the Rabat embassy where she was a lowly secretary and typist. Bought a cottage in the Cotswolds, so can’t afford to retire now.’

‘Well, congratulations George. You’re looking great. So married life must suit you.’

‘Yes, but she’s in England, and I’m here. She hates leaving Blighty since she left the diplomatic world, so there’s a lot of commuting on my part.’

Mahmud brought the drinks on a brass tray and the two men remained silent as the old man, in a brown djellaba and a white takiyah to cover his balding pate, placed the napkins and drinks on a small glass-topped table. He left the two men alone.

‘So what’s all this about, George?’

‘Two days ago I had a call from your old chief at B3, Sir Nigel Adair. They’ve got a special project on, and it seems he’s decided you could be a key player—if you’re willing and able.’

‘Oh God,’ murmured Vaux. Did he want to get back in that game? He had the time, for sure. And he had to admit his domestic life had become somewhat slow and repetitive. In his splendid isolation here in Tangier, he’d started to view his return to the old routine with some ennui, some reluctance. He had missed those dramatic episodes that the chance recruitment into MI6 had provided in his life. And the remuneration had been generous enough for him to finally buy his beloved bungalow with the fabulous country views.

Greaves sipped his fresh orange juice and casually looked around the pool area and then back at Vaux. He could see him hesitating. ‘I don’t have to tell you that you’d be rehired as a non-official cover operative. The NOC payout, including expenses, will be highly attractive. Not to mention your presumed desire to serve queen and country when called upon,’ said Greaves with—he hoped—genuine patriotic fervor.

Vaux was not about to collapse on his knees and beg the man to hire him. ‘I think you’d better tell me what this is all about, George.’

‘I was hoping you’d say that.’ Greaves then related the basic facts about Operation Apostate (whose title Sir Nigel increasingly admired the more he found himself using it).

‘So what appeared to be a clear-cut case of defection has overnight become a disaster of mammoth proportions. Really,’ said Vaux with a sigh, ‘B3 does seem to be accident prone.’

Vaux was thinking in particular of the assassination of Dr. Nessim Said, a Syrian nuclear scientist who had wanted to live in the United Kingdom. But he had been killed while under Vaux’s protection by persons unknown. (Vaux figured he had been the victim of Mossad’s ‘targeted killings’ of Arab or Iranian nuclear scientists but the official MI6 view was that the perpetrators were more likely to have been agents of the Syrian regime.)

Greaves ignored Vaux’s observation. ‘Can you help, old boy? The action is switching to this very area, probably this old port town that you used to say you were so fond of…’

‘Any theories about who may have done this? What groups are involved here? Why would someone want to kill this guy who was essentially a messenger boy? Not even a key player, presumably.’

Greaves said, ‘Perhaps you can find the answer to that. What do you say?’

Vaux finished off his screwdriver. He looked over to the lush bougainvillea at the base of a cluster of palm trees and then to the white-capped Atlantic, now ruffled by a strong wind from the west. Greaves waited patiently for his answer.

‘Yes, all right. Let’s get down to it.’