Davis called the next day to tell him that a meeting had been arranged. ‘You will travel tomorrow morning by the 8.20 a.m. to Euston where I shall meet you at the main taxi rank just outside the station. Bring a change of clothes since you will probably stay overnight,’ said Davis, thoroughly businesslike.
Vaux wondered why he had to meet Davis in London instead of them both driving there in Davis’s luxurious Bentley. He supposed they had their reasons. He should, he told himself, adopt a modest, eager-to-learn pose since he didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. He’d had a rough night, tossing and turning, thinking first of Veronica (he surprised himself by how keen he was to see her again) and then of the project that Davis had, in only the barest of details, outlined to him. But did he really want to get mixed up in this sort of thing at his age? He was looking forward to a carefree retirement, perhaps some odd freelance work, going up to the West End to the art galleries, to see the latest plays—do things his career had never given him enough time to do.
But necessity dictated certain actions, he supposed. If he didn’t feel he needed the sort of money Davis had told him would be forthcoming, things would be different. But the renewed war over No. 32 had changed the situation. With the extra cash he could contemplate the real possibility that he had a good chance of being the eventual victor—and move in. Without some sort of windfall, he would be facing at best a sort of non-retirement, almost a regression, a return to the life of his twenties.
He dressed that morning in the only dark suit he possessed (charcoal gray) and wore a paisley tie with a white shirt. He resolved to call Veronica Belmont from London—perhaps they’d have dinner when he got back.
Davis, in a trilby and trench coat, was standing a few feet from the long queue of people who were waiting for a taxi. The black cabs drove up rapidly and the line-up seemed to be moving quickly. Davis waved him over to where he was standing as though to suggest they wouldn’t be joining the queue after all.
‘Take this,’ he said, handing Vaux a small piece of paper on which he saw an address. ‘It’s a hotel in Swiss Cottage. Just ask the cab driver, he’ll know it. There’ll be someone looking out for you there. You’re booked in for tonight, by the way. Don’t bother about identification or payment—it’s all been taken care of.’
‘You’re not coming?’ asked Vaux, a little confused.
‘No. I’ve done my job. Good luck, old boy. Give me a ring when you get back, if you like. Oh, by the way, you’re Mr. Sanders as far as the hotel is concerned.’ He disappeared behind a stout stone column before Vaux could ask any more questions.
As he looked in the direction he thought Davis had taken, he caught sight of a tall, young woman with a striking resemblance to Veronica. She was striding through the teeming masses of commuters that thronged the big station’s concourse and appeared to be headed for the tube entrance.
‘I reckon that’s the old Finchley Hotel, guv,’ said the taxi driver, looking at the small piece of paper Vaux had handed him through the glass partition. ‘No. 45 Hendon Avenue, yeah, that’s the old Finchley. Don’t know the new name but it must be the same place.’
The hotel was one of those big terraced houses built in the nineteenth century for the up and coming rich commercial classes—four stories high with basement and porticoed front entrance. Those houses that hadn’t been turned into luxury boutique hotels had been transformed into small flats or bed-sitters with eight or nine tiny nameplates to guide visitors and postmen.
A uniformed man with a gray top hat opened the taxi door as Vaux scrambled out clutching his overnight bag. ‘Welcome to the Monet, sir,’ said the doorman.
Vaux saw that the small lobby was festooned with the great impressionist’s prints, along with those of his contemporaries—Manet, Pissarro and Renoir. At a low office-like desk sat a shiny-haired, dark suited young man whom Vaux observed nodding to someone behind him as if to signal that all formalities would be waived. Then he felt somebody or something touch his arm. ‘You must be Mr. Sanders. Mr. Silverstein is waiting for you. Can I carry your bag?’ The speaker was a tall, lean man in his early-forties, pinstriped suit, white shirt and black and gold college tie. They made their way to a small elevator, which creaked and groaned until it stopped with a jolt on the fourth floor.
Craw ushered him into what the hotel called its penthouse suite. He first thing he saw was a big print of Pissarro’s Church and Farm at Eragny. In the far corner of the room was a large desk at which a distinguished-looking gentleman sat reading what looked like The Times. ‘This is Mr. Silverstein,’ said Craw. They had agreed to use aliases because Vaux had come in from the cold—and because he had not yet been briefed on the Official Secrets Act. ‘And my name’s Kelly.’
Vaux noticed that Kelly had taken his overnight bag into another room, presumably his bedroom.
Sir Walter Mason offered him a drink, which Vaux declined on account of the time of day. ‘Some coffee perhaps?’ said Mason
The briefing commenced. Operation Helvetia was to be conducted by MI6 operatives who were to report directly to B3, the Near and Middle East desk. Vaux, if he came aboard, was to report to Alan Kelly, Mr. Silverstein’s deputy in the Helvetia project. Before outlining the purpose of the exercise, said Sir Walter, he would like to tell Vaux that they were familiar with his background, were impressed with his career and considered him an excellent candidate for the job.
Vaux listened intently. It was a bit Alice in Wonderland, he thought irreverently. What on earth had he really done to impress these spooks? A hint came in Sir Walter’s next comment.
‘We are aware that you spent three years in Cairo in the mid-60s where you agreed to do some undercover work for the Central Intelligence Agency—’
‘That’s not true,’ said Vaux quickly. If this was the quality of their intelligence he was not impressed. He remembered the stories in the American press and in Time for that matter, about the incompetence and amateurism of Britain’s intelligence establishment. Deep penetration of Soviet agents into the inner sanctums of the SIS—he even recalled rumors that the head of MI5 was under suspicion at one point—had made sensational headlines and stories at the time.
Sir Walter smiled and put his hand up, the heavily-lined palm facing Vaux. ‘That puts the matter to rest. I accept your denial. May I continue?’
The bombshell exploded after the coffee was brought, along with a plate of chocolate digestives. Craw was removing the tray when Mason, having lit up a Dunhill, pushed his chair back, stood up and turned to look out of the tall window. ‘The key to all this, Vaux, is your acquaintance with one Ahmed Abdul Kadri, a Syrian national whom you befriended in your years at Bristol University. You were classmates, I understand.’
The impact was numbing. Vaux was momentarily speechless. They had, after all, done their homework. Sir Walter had turned around to observe Vaux’s reaction. His expression suggested he could wait while Vaux composed his reply.
‘Yes, we were friends. A long time ago. I haven’t been in touch with him for some years. I doubt if I’d even recognize him now. But how does he come into this?’
Sir Walter opened a folder that The Times had been concealing. ‘Ahmed Kadri is now working for the Syrian Ministry of Defense. He heads the purchasing department and he’s responsible for the procurement of weapons and armaments and other military equipment—from tanks and trucks to cruise missiles and rifles.’ Mason paused.
Vaux’s eyebrows rose as he digested the information. ‘When I last heard from him he was working at the central bank in Damascus—Bank of Syria, I suppose. He was an economist there and I think he headed up the statistics department, such as it was in those days. He used to joke about how primitive the state of the art was among the Arab countries. He was coming over to Washington to take a course given by the World Bank in statistics and data systems and the like, specially designed for Third World central bankers. I remember he said he’d call me when he was in Washington. I was then in Ottawa, but quite prepared to fly down and see him, of course.’
Mason and Craw exchanged glances. ‘And did you eventually get together?’
‘No—there was some sort of hitch at the last minute. After that, well, you know how it is. We got on with our lives. He was having some trouble with his marriage at that point, and my own marriage was pretty much on the rocks. In that sense we still had a lot in common. We had a good laugh about that.’
Mason continued: ‘In the summer of ’59 you went together to France, stayed in Paris at the Cite Universitaire complex. Is that correct?’
Vaux recalled that idyllic summer. Six weeks with Ahmed, drifting around France, getting drunk on cheap red wine, discovering French food, his French improving by the day (Kadri had insisted they speak to each other only in French), and Ahmed’s surprise success with the girls. Vaux figured they liked his olive skin, his dark, hooded eyes, his slight build, and probably his Arab-accented French. But there was no rivalry between them.
‘Yes. I remember it well—with apologies to Maurice Chevalier.’
The attempt at humor was ignored. ‘And you both visited the Syrian embassy before heading south—presumably to Nice. Can you tell me why you went to the embassy on the Rue Vaneau in the Seventh Arrondissement?’
God almighty, thought Vaux. This seemed like an official interrogation. What the hell am I doing here?
‘It was so long ago, I can’t recall.’ Put that in your pipe, thought Vaux, happy perhaps to have scored a point for himself—and Ahmed.
The session went on. Dinner was brought up by room service—club sandwiches and some beer. A Foreign Office lawyer visited and apprised Vaux of the main thrust of the Official Secrets Act. He left a thick paper-backed volume for bedtime reading.
Vaux was left alone at about 11.30. He put on the television and saw some late-night news. The House of Commons had elected its first woman speaker, Mrs. Betty Boothroyd, who seemed to Vaux to be kindlier and gentler than the U.K.’s first woman PM, Maggie Thatcher, now kicked upstairs to the House of Lords. He was told not to use the phone in the penthouse, so he thought he’d call Veronica in the morning from a call box.