In the distance he could hear the subdued rumblings of the late-night traffic around the harbor. The narrow, darkened streets were deserted except for couples who seemed reluctant to go home and listless young men hawking drugs to any aimless punter who looked interested or bored. Vaux looked up at the shabby, shuttered building. Nothing had changed since his earlier reconnaissance.
But then he saw it: through a sash window on the third floor—a glimmer of light that projected upwards to a yellowed ceiling. He stood on the other side of the street and watched. There was no movement and no hint of any activity. He walked through the small cobbled front garden towards the door: withered plants in old clay flower pots served as sentries to the narrow entrance, painted blue many moons ago, faded and blistered by the hot sun. Vaux looked for a bell push. Suddenly the door opened.
A tall thin man in a long, striped cotton thobe, gave a slight bow and gestured with his arm for Vaux to enter. In the sepulchral blue-tiled foyer, the man silently gestured again towards the narrow staircase. Vaux nodded as the old man lightly brushed past him to climb the stairs and presumably to the man Craw had described as the key contact in what he called the ‘multinational effort’ to support MI6’s Operation Mascara.
A light knock at the door, followed by two more in rapid succession. He saw a dark, bulky figure sitting at a small desk at the far side of the room. An anglepoise lamp threw a round, bright light on the leather surface and effectively obscured the man’s face in the surrounding gloom.
‘Ah, Westropp! You don’t know me but I’ve heard a lot about you! My assistant, Mustafa, had noticed you loitering in front of the house. So all is well.’
Vaux was caught off-guard. It had been a long time since anyone had addressed him by his old code name. But he felt a slight layer of protection enfold him. He had never liked to hear his real name used by the ephemeral occupants of the secret world. He stretched out his hand to confirm the identification. It was gripped tightly by a warm, rather damp fleshy fist. But before he could confirm his name, the man behind the desk declared he was delighted to meet him.
‘Finally, we have caught up,’ said Vaux, in an attempt to imply that the cat-and-mouse game Vaux had been forced to play had been a bureaucrat-inspired waste of time.
Mishka ignored the remark. ‘I have been instructed by your Mr. Craw to give you the outline of the mission at hand. If you are curious as to who I am or what masters I answer to, you will have to consult your colleagues in London.’
Vaux nodded agreement. Mishka leaned sideways and produced a bottle of Evian from behind the desk, a move that prompted Mustafa to rush forward with a small tray and two glasses.
‘I’ve heard many stories about your various exploits, Westropp. You are practically a legend in our ranks!’
‘Yes, well, thank you,’ said Vaux modestly. ‘And you are?’
‘You can call me Mishka—that’s all you have to know. And this is Mustafa, my assistant. He comes from a small town called Mascara in Algeria.’
Vaux turned to acknowledge Mustafa who had now retreated to his station by the door. Vaux’s eyes swept around the room: yellowed walls with discolored blotches where damp had seeped in, tobacco-stained ceiling with broken curlicued friezes; a large, faded nineteenth century canvas of tall ships docked in the fog-bound Vieux Port. Vaux had noted Mishka’s wily insertion of the Operation’s code name. He settled into the upright chair that faced his host.
The man who called himself Mishka then opened a drawer. He extracted a manila folder. He took out one sheet of A4 paper and began to read from it in an accent Vaux recognized as part-Israeli, part London estuary, with the guttural overtones of Arabic.
He handed Vaux the note.
‘As you see, a major terrorist outrage is imminent. The target is the grand new mosque now being built in Algiers. They want to blow it sky high. It’s a pet project of Bouteflika, the president, who thinks it will bring prestige and fame to the capital. It will be the third biggest mosque in the world after Mecca and Medina. There’s a lot riding on it: in the Arab street, Bouteflika’s popularity is waning. He’s a sick man and he’s been in power for sixteen years now and not much of the country’s oil riches have percolated down to the masses.’
‘What terrorist group are we talking about?’ asked Vaux.
‘That’s where you come in.’