Morocco | It smells of fear in the Café de la Porte in Tangier. It’s the same smell you always find on the fringes of power. But there’s also the smell of croissants and boiled eggs, strong tea and buttered toast. The café is large and open with rose coloured posts wrapped in ivy, cream walls contrast with the mahogany tables and chairs, wooden sills and skirting with large windows. The waiters have bow-ties and the entire place is a step-up from the usual grime and flies of other eateries in this northern Moroccan seaport. It’s a place of old world elegance and intrigue, and spacious languid romance. It’s a place where mystery novels are born.

The café has regulars like the aging queen with his tight waistcoat stretched over an ample stomach who sits near the door, resting on his teak and gold cane. His hopeful grin looks wolfish, not innocent, when his hand darts out to stroke the thigh of the passing waiter. These queens are the lost tribe of homosexuals, men who decamped to Tangier in a more restrictive age. They came looking for the license only found in port cities, at the end of the road, in a poor country. As Europe learned to tolerate gay love most of them left Tangiers, but the wistfulness of defying censure, the remembrance of youthful rebellion still lingers on the steep streets overlooking the harbour… and in the café.

Other regulars are mobsters. Easily spotted by the wildly elegant dress on rough frames and the exaggerated manners overwhelmed by bad table behaviour. The careful coffee stirring and spoon placement is knocked aside by loud lip smacking, open-jawed wolfing of pastries and mouth wiping on the cuffs of a Boss sports jacket.

Sitting below Europe, looking up from the northern tip of Africa, Tangier has always been the focal point of African ambition and envy. In this port city, the closest point to Europe, the fragile hopes and dented dreams of millions have traditionally concentrated. From here you can see the mountains of Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. The hills shimmer in the heat. They are insubstantial heights, like the prospects of many would-be immigrants. Every year hundreds… thousands, make a dash across that channel aiming for those Spanish hills and Europe. Every year dozens drown. Most of the dashes start in the Café de la Porte, in the central part of the city on a hill but out of sight of the lovely curved harbour below.

At one table a large, fleshy-faced fixer introduces a muscled man, tattooed with a bald head, wearing canary yellow running shoes to the best dressed man in the place. The well-dressed one has facial tics, cold eyes, he carries a golf magazine with cared-for fingers and smacked his lips, like the snap of a revolver, when he wasn’t speaking. The meeting lasted almost ten minutes. The fixer talked in the fast, whisper-like confidential tone of an underling rapidly sharing something of hoped-for importance with a superior. The thug tried hard to sit still and behave but like water squeezed in a bag, some of his base instinct seeped out.

He laughed without grace, his meaty hands sat on the table like he was getting a manicure and he made jokes no one found funny. But for a few moments he was the bright new thing. He can do this. He can do that. The eagerness on the thug’s part blinded him to the cold calculation of where he fit into the other’s self-interest. He’ll do something of value, with high risk attached, and then be discarded or denied. He’ll cram people into the bottom of a leaky boat. He may even be the boat captain, the one who makes the dash between Tangier and a deserted beach in southern Spain on a night with no moon, heavy clouds and a storm on the way.

The one in yellow shoes was ushered out of the Café de la Porte, out to where risk and reward embrace. The fleeting joy of being the plaything of the wealthy was over. The momentary glimpse of another life that comes from being escorted through the door to privilege on a day pass faded to black. The waiter brought more tea and the smell of fear melted in the steam.