Illegal Holdings by Michael Niemann is the third book in the Valentin Vermeulen Thriller series, set in Africa (available March 1, 2018).
UN fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen is on assignment in Maputo, Mozambique. His humdrum task is to see if Global Alternatives is spending UN money the way they promised. The nonprofit was set up by hedge fund mogul Vincent Portallis to revolutionize development aid. The only upside for Vermeulen is the prospect of seeing his lover Tessa Bishonga, who is reporting on foreign land acquisitions in Africa. When Vermeulen notices that a five-million-dollar transfer has gone missing, he is given the run-around.
First he is told the files have been mislaid, then stolen, then he is assured that the money was never transferred to begin with. But the money was transferred, so where is it now? Vermeulen's dogged pursuit of the missing transfer makes him the target of some ruthless operators. And once he meets up with Tessa, she is inevitably sucked in to the story as well, which turns out to be far more nefarious than either of them imagined. Now they are both in deadly danger.
An Uncanny Sense
It was just another Tuesday morning in late January, the warmest and rainiest month in Maputo. Acacia pods littered the streets of Mozambique’s capital, and its million-and-a-half residents were looking forward to winter.
The email, which arrived at the Nossa Terra office at eight thirty, hit Aisa Simango like a fist in the stomach.
She was looking out the window. That much she remembered afterwards. Looking at the Avenida Vladimir Lenine, thinking that the street seemed forlorn in the watery morning light. Why she was looking out of the window, she didn’t remember. She should have been printing the agenda for the nine o’clock staff meeting, steeling herself for the chaos that erupted when her staff barged into the office.
Instead, she was standing by the window, pensive. Maybe she’d stopped to straighten the picture of her children, Alima and João, on the windowsill. Sometimes the vibrations of a heavy truck driving by nudged it closer to the edge. Or perhaps she was thinking about the Sofala Project, wondering if it stood any chance of being completed on time.
In any case, her computer dinged, she sat down and opened the message.
It came from the Maputo office of Global Alternatives, the Swiss foundation set up by hedge-fund billionaire Vincent Portallis. The foundation was a newcomer to the development-aid field. It undertook big, flashy projects, lured famous actors to its causes, and dispensed a trickle of the millions of dollars it leveraged to local subcontractors like Nossa Terra.
The message itself started with the usual noncommittal niceties—Greetings, Aisa. How are things? It’s been a while—but got to the point quickly. We’ve emailed Helton Paito repeatedly regarding a discrepancy in the disbursements. We’ve received no reply. Would you kindly review the numbers in the attached spreadsheet and supply the proper documentation, or alternatively, remit the specified amount to Global Alternatives?
She wasn’t worried yet. Not then. The message sounded more pro forma than anything. Just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Making sure all the numbers added up, accountability and efficacy being big buzzwords in the donor community. Most likely, Helton was already dealing with it. Her first glance at the spreadsheet also didn’t raise any suspicions. Yes, they had proposed to spend those sums for those purposes. She knew, because she had personally reviewed the project proposal before submitting it five months ago.
It was the last column that sent her reeling. She rubbed her eyes, focused on the street outside, then back on the screen. The numbers were still there, including the last one, bold and in bright red. Like dabs of blood left on the screen. The number was too large, too ghastly to imagine. Five million dollars. Unaccounted for, missing, not properly documented. No matter what phrase she came up with, it still meant trouble, serious trouble.
Of course, it was all wrong. Five months ago, when they’d been notified that the project in Sofala had been accepted, everybody had clapped. But so far, they’d only received a small disbursement. Enough to set up the infrastructure and hire personnel. Certainly not five million dollars.
She got up. Went to the window. And back to her desk. She grabbed her mobile. Call Global Alternatives, ask if there has been a mistake, if this is someone’s idea of a joke. She didn’t. Obviously, Global Alternatives didn’t make mistakes or joke around.
There were documents, receipts, invoices for the hundred thousand they’d received. They could account for all expenditures. She dialed Helton’s number. He would know where the mistake lay, which numbers had ended up in the wrong column, projected expenses instead of disbursements, or vice versa. He was her second in command and usually the second one through the door in the morning. He answered after four rings.
“Bom dia, Helton,” she said. “Where are you?”
“Just got off the chapa at Julius Nyerere. Be there in fifteen.”
“I need you here now.”
The chapa stop, where the minibus taxis dropped and picked up passengers, was close enough, one of the reasons they had chosen an office so far from central Maputo. But Helton liked to check out the wares of the hawkers along the roundabout connecting Avenida Vladimir Lenine and Avenida Julius Nyerere.
“I still need breakfast. Why the hurry? Tudo bem?”
“No, everything isn’t okay. Where are we with the Sofala Project?”
“We completed the first phase. We rented a space, hired a local manager, did the registration and all that. Next phase is community meetings. Then comes the big stuff—land acquisition.”
“And we’ve spent what, a hundred thousand?” She hated the guessing game. A sheet of paper, better yet, an old-fashioned ledger with dated entries for every centavo would have calmed her.
“Yes, about that much.”
“And you have documentation for every expenditure?” She held her breath without meaning to. Helton had been good for Nossa Terra, even if she didn’t always get along with him. He was the accountant who’d made it possible to land projects like the one with Global Alternatives.
“Of course. I’ll be there soon. Até já.”
He sounded both upset and defensive when he ended the call.
She went back to the window. The melancholy she felt when looking at the Avenida Vladimir Lenine in the rain was more bearable than the dejection evoked by the stark office. When Nossa Terra first moved here after their big expansion four years earlier, the soulless space had weighed on her. But the rent was cheap, and Nossa Terra had no money. Since then, new employees had tried to spruce it up. They affixed posters to the walls and brought in all sorts of plants. In the end, they all surrendered to the futility of the makeover, giving in to the cement walls, impervious to any improvement.
Before the move, Nossa Terra had been a scrappy community organization fighting for land so its members could farm. It had taken Aisa in thirteen years earlier. She had just given birth to João sixteen months after having Alima. Their father up and left, unwilling to face raising children. She was desperate for food, shelter, companions. She wasn’t much of a farmer, but she had an uncanny sense of the limit beyond which the authorities would abandon any pretense of accommodation and just call the police. That skill helped her get concessions, then leases, and eventually, land titles.
By that time, the global aid complex had fully embraced Mozambique. Nossa Terra was noticed. Graduate students from Scandinavian universities came to study it. A documentary filmmaker from Brazil shot enough footage to put together an hour-long feature.
When the foundations came knocking, Aisa, the single mom, was ready. She hired three staff not knowing how she’d pay them at the end of the month and drew up a proposal to expand the work Nossa Terra had done near Maputo to the next province. After submitting the proposal, she landed her first project, worth a hundred thousand dollars, three days before payroll came due.
Helton barged into the office. He seemed to compress the air in any room he entered. The others called him “Hilton,” not because he was as refined as a luxury hotel, but as big as they imagined a Hilton to be. It wasn’t just his size. With his shiny face, wooly hair, spotty beard, and big smile, he exuded maleness, not in a primordial sense, more in a here’s-a-guy’s-guy sense. Men liked him automatically. Many women did, too. Even some who worked at Nossa Terra. Aisa wasn’t one of them.
“What’s the matter with the Sofala Project?” he said, stopping in the open door.
“Have they contacted you?”
“Yes. Routine stuff. Why?”
Closing the door, he walked to his desk, took off the blue suit coat, and hung it over the back of the chair. Helton always wore a suit, shirt, and tie. Since he only had the one suit, time had taken its toll on the garment. Aisa thought a simple shirt with tie would look far better, but the suit was part of Helton’s guyness.
“So far they’ve disbursed a hundred thousand?” she said.
“Yes, yes. I told you.”
“I received an email from Global Alternatives. They mentioned discrepancies. They say they have repeatedly sent you messages.”
“Oh, yes. I’ve gotten requests for documentation,” he said. “I sent them.”
“Well, the discrepancies are still there.”
“Five million dollars’ worth of discrepancies,” she said.
She turned to the computer, thinking that Helton’s protestation made him look like he knew more.
“Look at the spreadsheet.”
He plopped into Aisa’s chair, which squeaked under his weight. He jiggled the mouse. The picture of Maputo’s beachfront disappeared, and the columns and numbers reappeared, the last one still a blood-red punctuation mark. Helton followed the numbers, his right index finger moving down the screen. He mouthed each number silently. As the finger approached the red number, he started shaking his head.
“No,” he said so quietly she barely heard it. “No, no, no.” His voice became louder with each “No.” Whatever defensiveness Aisa thought she’d noticed was gone. The Helton before her was a man utterly shocked.
“This can’t be,” he said. “They’re basically saying we’ve accepted five million and submitted no expenditure reports, no receipts, nothing. As if we took the money and socked it away in a secret account in Jo’burg.”
“But we didn’t, right?”
He gave her a withering look. “Do you have to ask?”
“I’m sorry, but I do. For the record.”
He looked away, his body taking up less space. They each waited for the next word.
“What do I have to do to earn your trust?” he said finally, looking at her again. “It wasn’t my fault.”
She knew he wasn’t talking about the five million. He was talking about the past, a past that linked them. When she was twelve, her village in Sofala was attacked by soldiers of the Mozambican National Resistance known everywhere as RENAMO. The long civil war between RENAMO and the government had ground to a halt. A ceasefire had already been agreed to. Still, her village was attacked. Her father was killed. She saw him bleed to death because the soldiers burned the clinic and killed the nurse first.
After she hired Helton, she found out he’d been a RENAMO soldier in Sofala. He never denied that. By his account, he’d been kidnapped and forced to fight for the rebels like so many other kids. They made him and the others attack their villages and kill as many as they could. After the kids had become killers, they couldn’t go back.
During the attack, Aisa had seen children, their ragged uniforms held up by sisal ropes, their rubber boots intended for adults, the AK47s too big for them. But they pulled the trigger and killed just like adults. After the war finally ended, villages held reconciliation sessions. Bringing the children face-to-face with the families whose members they’d killed. Teaching them to ask for forgiveness. Her own village had held one. By all accounts, the event had helped many cross chasms of anger, fear, and hurt. She’d missed it, having moved to Maputo well before.
“I know it wasn’t your fault,” she said. “You have my trust, but five million dollars is too much money. This isn’t a personal thing. If those numbers are correct, it will be the end of Nossa Terra.”
“We never got five million,” Helton said.
Aisa nodded. That much money she would’ve remembered. “What is the disbursement schedule for the rest of the money?”
“Phase two? Just seventy thousand. Enough to buy a four-wheel drive and pay travel expenses to the community meetings. The big disbursement was to come in phase three, land acquisition. But we’re at least a half year away from that.”
“So it has to be a data-entry error.”
“Naturally. Somebody over at Global Alternatives got their wires crossed.”
“So a simple phone call should straighten this out, right?”
Helton shrugged. “Naturally.”
“Before I call them, show me everything you have. And I mean everything.”
Helton opened the first file cabinet. One of his jobs after joining Nossa Terra had been to bring order to the paperwork. Most of the staff didn’t care much for paperwork. The filing system was a mess. Helton had changed that. He’d pushed for the purchase of a scanner to store paperwork electronically and kept the hardcopies as backup in designated folders, clearly labeled and stored in file cabinets in the order in which they were completed.
Aisa looked on as he yanked open drawer after drawer, fingering folders, pulling out one or the other only to put it back again. Ten minutes into his increasingly frantic search, the rest of the staff started drifting in. Neither Aisa nor Helton greeted them, so they went to the kitchen and started the morning tea ritual.
“You can’t find it, can you?” Aisa said.
Helton pulled open one last drawer. His fingers crawled over the folder tabs, stopping here and there, but he didn’t pull anything out. He stood up and wiped sweat from his forehead.
“They’re not here,” he said quietly.
“Are you sure there is no other place it could be?”
Helton nodded. He went over to his computer. He clicked on folder icons and closed them again equally fast.
“This is impossible,” he mumbled. His clicking grew more desperate, as if tapping the mouse button fast enough would reveal the missing files.
“Talk to me, Helton.”
He didn’t. More and more windows filled the screen. He cycled through them faster than she could comprehend.
“Talk to me. Please.” It was more a whisper than a command.
“It’s gone. Everything is gone,” he said finally, his skin ashen.
* * *
“We received some troublesome news,” Aisa said to the staff, who had stood there, tea cups in hand, puzzled, while Aisa and Helton looked for the documents. “Kindly take your seats and pay attention.”
Raised eyebrows, murmurs, shuffling feet, and scraping chairs followed. Everybody had their spot. Helton’s was across from Aisa. He’d said it balanced the table. She thought it was a power play. Zara Nyussi, a slight woman with close cropped hair, took the chair on his right, as if trying to disappear next to his bulk. She kept to herself but made sure their computer network functioned without a hitch. She was the go-to resource for anything technical below the level that required a consultant.
Bartina Macie took her seat next to Aisa. She was a big woman with an unruly afro and a face that made people think twice about contradicting her. Aisa had hired her, not sure what, if anything, she could do at the office. Bartina had stopped her on the street and asked if she had a job cleaning, washing, cooking, anything. Having no space or money for a maid, Aisa had waved her off. But Bartina wasn’t easy to get rid of. She just followed Aisa from the chapa stop to the office. By lunchtime that day, Bartina had a job cleaning the office and making tea. By evening, she’d fixed the eternally leaking toilet and her job at Nossa Terra was secure. In the three years since, she’d worked her way up to project assistant and was forever loyal to Aisa. “You heard the woman,” she bellowed across the room. “Sit on down and listen up.”
The chair pulling and murmurs stopped.
“As you know, Global Alternatives is funding the Sofala Project and we work as their local partners on the implementation,” Aisa said. “This morning, we received an email telling us that we’ve failed to submit the necessary documentation for the expenditures. They’ve asked us to send that information or return the funds.”
The silence engendered by the curt announcement lasted almost a minute.
“How much?” Tendai Cunha, manager for a vocational training project at the outskirts of Maputo, said. Tendai was the living embodiment of average. Average height, weight, face, and clothes. Even some of the regulars at his favorite bar forgot his face the moment he left. Many concluded therefore that his averageness also extended to his mind. More than one had found they were wrong after being reduced to embarrassed silence by his sharp tongue. Only Bartina was impervious to his slights.
“Five million dollars,” Aisa said.
A collective gasp faded into silence. Not everyone working for Nossa Terra was familiar with all budgetary details, but they knew five-million missing dollars meant serious trouble.
“There is no reason to worry. Helton and I will sort out what happened and we’ll get to the bottom of it. I ask that the rest of you continue your work. Thank you all. Zara, would you join Helton and me in the meeting room?”
Aisa waited until Helton and Zara had entered the room and closed the door.
“Zara, Helton can’t find the electronic copies of the Sofala Project paperwork. Please double-check. Were they accidentally deleted? Moved to a different place?” Helton opened his mouth. “Quiet, Helton,” she told him. “I know you looked everywhere. But we need a fresh set of eyes. And, Zara, if they’re really gone, can they be retrieved? If not, I need to know what happened. Do you think you could do that in an hour?”
Zara nodded and left the room.
Aisa sat down. The shock and worry on the faces of her employees, her colleagues really, brought home the magnitude of the threat. The knot in her stomach tightened. All she could do was hope, hope that Zara found the documentation, hope that Helton remembered the special place where he’d stored the folder, hope that it had all been a silly mistake.
“When was the last time you saw the files?”
“The hard copies? I don’t know. It’s been a while. I work with the electronic copies.”
“And when did you work with them?”
Helton shrugged. “Last week?”
“Please try to be precise.”
“I don’t know. I think I worked on it last Thursday. That’s the best I can remember.”
* * *
At eleven, Zara tapped Aisa on the shoulder. Aisa had been staring out the window again and spun around, annoyed at having been caught daydreaming.
“I can’t find the files,” Zara said. “Usually when files are deleted, they don’t disappear, the system just deletes their directory entry. But I didn’t find any stray files on Helton’s computer.”
“Let’s talk in the meeting room,” Aisa said.
After she closed the door, she didn’t sit down.
“I’m not sure what you mean, Zara. Helton assures me that he had them last Thursday. Are you saying they were never on his computer?”
“I can’t find any trace of them.”
“So he never had those files?” Aisa remembered his cagey behavior when she first told him about the email. She’d been right to mistrust Helton.
“I’m not saying that,” Zara said. “Those disk sectors could have been overwritten by new documents. Once a file name isn’t in the directory anymore, the computer thinks the space is available for new data.”
“And were they?”
“So we don’t know if the files were ever there or not.”
“No. But I did find one odd thing. A part of the disk was overwritten with zeroes.”
Aisa had no idea what that meant. Zara must have seen that.
“An empty hard disk has nothing on it,” she said. “It’s just empty space. Nothing there, not even zeroes.”
“So how did those get there?”
“One possibility is that someone used secure erase.”
“Please, Zara, speak to me in terms I can understand.”
“Oh, sorry, of course. Secure erasing is meant to make sure that nobody can find a deleted file. So, in addition to deleting the directory entry, secure erase overwrites with zeros the space where the file’s data was. It’s meant to make sure the data are unreadable.”
“Could Helton have done that by accident?”
Zara shook her head. There was sadness in her face. “No, the system asks you specifically if you want to choose that option. It was deliberate.”
The magnitude of that statement dawned on Aisa only in stages. Deliberate. Someone did it on purpose. It wasn’t just an innocent mistake. Someone meant to do it.
“Is it possible to tell who did that?”
Zara shook her head again.
“So anyone could have done it?” Aisa said.
“Anyone who knows the password to access that computer. Which means everybody here.”
Each machine had its password taped to the monitor.
“Could someone from the outside have done that?” Aisa said, desperate now. She couldn’t conceive of anyone on her staff being the culprit. There had to be someone else, an outsider.
Zara shrugged. “It’s possible. But how did they get inside? The doors are locked when we aren’t here. You made sure we understand that policy. There are grates over the windows.”
“How about over the internet. Could someone have broken in that way and done it?”
“Again, it’s possible. For hackers, it’s not difficult. But who would hack into our computers? We don’t have anything worth stealing.”
“Could you find out?”
“No. A good hacker wouldn’t leave any traces.”
Excerpted from ILLEGAL HOLDINGS © Copyright 2018 by Michael Niemann. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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Michael Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. He's been writing fiction since 2010. For more information, go to: michael-niemann.com.