Behind the Book
Africa has a dangerous edge that makes it an ideal setting for a thriller. I took a trip there years ago to research a novel but discovered that a few weeks wasn’t enough time to absorb such an exotic atmosphere. The idea went on the back burner, but I couldn’t get the place out of my mind.
The next winter I found myself living in Cape Town, South Africa, and since then I’ve spent many of my winters there, getting a perspective on the continent that can’t be gained by reading books or just passing through.
The first thing that struck me was that the problems of Africa are more widespread than I’d realized. Even the countries that never make the U.S. news struggle desperately with poverty, AIDS, violence, and a lack of access to education. As I drove through some of these places, I searched for the benefits of the foreign aid that’s been flowing into the continent for decades but could never find any.
In fact, I found the opposite: Bureaucrats diverting food aid from their political opponents to their supporters, dictators funneling donated money into weapons and Swiss bank accounts, and projects that were unsustainable without constant Western involvement. In the end, I began to wonder if the good intentions of aid agencies weren’t behind a lot of Africa’s problems.
Being a crook at heart, I couldn’t help noticing the opportunities all this provides. What if a criminal organization were to start a bogus NGO and partner with one of these corrupt regimes? They would be able to siphon tens of millions of dollars from U.S. and UN programs, fleece private donors, traffic in drugs and weapons, as well as charge the local government for helping to whitewash its genocidal policies.
It turned out to be an almost perfect crime. Aid agencies have very little oversight and what they do have focuses on things like efficiency and project sustainability. No one is looking for anything malignant. And even if they found it, they’d probably blame some corrupt local bureaucrat or the general state of dysfunction that plagues many countries in the region.
In the end, the question became not how you would do it but how could you stop it…
“I’m Stephen Trent. When I’m in the country, I run this place.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Trent,” Josh said. “I really appreciate you inviting me up here.”
“Stephen. And I appreciate you taking the time to talk to a little charity like us. We know you must have big money offers coming in from all over the country, but I think we might be able to offer you something unique.”
Trent led him through a narrow hallway toward the back of the building. The walls were lined with photographs of happy Africans in agricultural settings—sometimes working, sometimes posed with their arms around each other, sometimes in large groups with Trent’s relatively pale face hovering somewhere near the center.
“Have a seat,” Trent said, pointing to a comfortable looking leather chair. Josh did as he was told and Trent took the chair next to him instead of going behind the imposing desk that dominated the room. “So I assume you’ve done some research on us?”
“I have, but I wouldn’t say I’m an expert.”
Trent nodded knowingly. “We’re a small, focused charity and we like it that way. Our donors are sophisticated enough to understand that Africa is too complicated a place to fix with strategies that can be summed up in a sound bite. How much do you know about foreign aid, Josh?”
“Only what I’ve read. I don’t have any direct experience, if that’s what you mean.”
Trent didn’t seem concerned. “Foreign governments and aid agencies have been pouring money and people into Africa for decades. And if you criticize them, they’ll hit you with a bunch of excuses: This project didn’t work because of this extenuating circumstance or that project didn’t work out because of that extenuating circumstance. It’s really quite ridiculous. Do you know why?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Of course, you don’t. Why would you? It’s because there’s always an extenuating circumstance. And if there’s always an extenuating circumstance…” He paused, obviously looking to Josh to finish the thought.
“Then it’s not an extenuating circumstance?”
“Exactly!” Trent slapped the arm of his chair loudly. “Let me give you a piece of advice, Josh. If you ever become a millionaire and someone comes to you looking for aid money for Africa, ask them to take you on a tour of their projects.”
Josh tried to appear thoughtful, but mostly he was thankful that Trent was content to do most of the talking.
“But when you get there,” Trent continued, warming up to his subject. “Tell them you only want to see projects that are ten years old. Then watch them scramble.”
“But the newspaper articles I could find on you have been pretty complimentary,” Josh said. “They say you’ve been pretty effective.”
“Yes! But it’s because we’re different. Some people think we’re hard-asses, but if we think a project isn’t going to be productive in the long-term, we won’t touch it.”
“And other agencies will?”
“Hell, yes. Look, don’t get me wrong. They all have good intentions. But after they’ve hired a bunch of people, put infrastructure in place, started a donation campaign built around this project or that, it gets pretty hard to just pull the plug.”
“Everyone would be out of a job,” Josh said. “And they’d have to tell the donors that their money was wasted.”
“Precisely.” He leaned back in his chair and examined Josh for a moment. “Have you ever been involved in charity work?”
It was an obvious question that Trent almost certainly already knew the answer to. Josh had thought about it from every possible angle, but he had absolutely nothing to work with. He’d never even been in the boy scouts.
“I haven’t, Stephen. But I’ve been around it. I grew up in a pretty poor area of the south.”
Trent nodded but didn’t immediately speak. “Okay, then. Let me ask you this. Have you ever been the recipient of charity?”
With his ritual of meticulous interview preparation, Josh had never been surprised by an interview question and that left him with no canned reaction for the first time. He felt his mouth tighten and he ran a tongue slowly over his teeth, trying to decide if he should be pissed off and what he should say.
“You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want, Josh.”
“No, it’s okay. The answer is yes. I have.”
Trent jabbed a finger in his direction. “You see? That’s a unique perspective that no one here—not me, not anyone—has. It’s the kind of diversity that I believe can help make this organization even more effective. I mean, in a way, you’re the model of what we want for the Africans. You started poor and disadvantaged, and you overcame that.”
Stephen Trent sat down behind his desk, but then immediately stood up again. A quick glance at the clock on the wall confirmed that he had less than a minute. Aleksei Fedorov had told him 9 p.m. and he was never late. Never.
Trent took a deep breath and smoothed the imaginary wrinkles from his shirt, a nervous tic that was impossible to resist but entirely pointless. Fedorov didn’t care about anything that didn’t involve making him money, holding onto money, and keeping money—and the power it implied—out of the hands of his enemies.
The lights in the hall were off and Trent walked through the gloom, taking deep, calming breaths, finally stopping in the lobby and watching the front door. The second hand on the receptionist’s desk was almost thirty seconds past the hour when the sound of a key in the lock became audible over the muffled sound of traffic outside.
“Aleksei! It’s good to see you!” Trent said, a little too loud to seem calm and a little too cheerful to sound spontaneous. If there was one positive thing about spending so much of his time in the godforsaken backwater of Africa where they worked, it was that Fedorov almost never set foot on the continent.
Unfortunately, this was not true of their offices in New York. Despite endless hints designed to prevent these visits, Fedorov seemed to enjoy using them as a display of his power—proof that he was untouchable. And maybe he was. But why endanger everyone else?
Fedorov shook Trent’s outstretched hand more as a reflex than any real interest, his deep eyes taking in his surroundings more like a camera than the windows to the soul that poets postulated. They twitched back and forth over a long, straight nose that hinted at his foreign birth, and an expression that suggested it hadn’t been a pleasant one.
“We’ve had a thirteen percent drop in donations. Why?”
It seemed that his accent became more imperceptible every time they met, and that was worrying. Fedorov had relocated to the U.S. less than ten years ago, and now at age fifty was close to perfecting his fifth language. Trent had been blessed with an impressive intellect that he had leveraged for everything it was worth, but it tended to make him uncomfortable around those rare people who were clearly smarter than he was. It was an advantage he was loath to give up.
“Let’s go back to my office, Aleksei. I’ll make you a drink.”
“First, you’ll answer my goddamn question.”
“We’ve got a few things working against us,” Trent said, as he started back down the hall, anxious to get Fedorov away from the windows looking out onto the street. “And they’re all hard to control. The U.S. economy’s weakened pretty significantly in the last six months and that makes people feel less generous. Also, after getting a good run in the press for a while, the problems in Africa are taking a back burner. The Middle East, political scandals… Even global warming is getting better ratings.”
He stopped and let Fedorov go through the office door first. He couldn’t read the man’s expression in the dim light and had no idea how he was taking what he was hearing, making it impossible to make necessary adjustments in his tone and approach.
“We’re doing what we can, but…” He let his voice trail off as he poured two whiskeys. Fedorov wandered around the office and examined things that he clearly had no interest in.
After a few seconds, the silence became uncomfortable and Trent found himself speaking again, purely out of nervousness. “We’re working on a large partnership with USAid right now, Aleksei, and I’m optimistic about it. We’d be the primary administrators of a twenty-million-dollar project. Right now it’s between us and CARE, but I think we’ll get it over them. The danger is more that the U.S. will pull funding entirely. Conditions in-country are getting worse and it’s getting harder to convince people that the money they put there is going to make a difference.”
Fedorov turned and accepted the whiskey Trent held out to him, looking down at it as though he thought it might be poisoned. “I looked at your new campaign, Stephen. It’s shit. Another bunch of happy niggers with shovels.”
“Our work is done,” Fedorov continued, cutting him off. “Is that what you’re trying to say? Because that’s what I’m seeing—Africans so happy and healthy that I think they should be giving me money.”
“Like I was saying, Aleksei, we have to show a certain amount of progress and stability. Our focus groups—”
“Your focus groups?” Fedorov shouted. “Why don’t you give me your focus groups’ addresses? Then I can have a conversation with them about why I’m not making any money.”
“Please, I think—”
“Am I wrong, Stephen? Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me that I can’t do math.”
“That’s not what I’m saying…”
“Don’t we have photos of dead children? Why are you the only person on the fucking planet who can’t find dead Africans to take pictures of? You can’t walk ten feet in that country without tripping over one.”
“Remember that picture of the starving kid with the vulture standing next to him? That made people want to give money.
Trent tried to remember how many times that particular image had come up and how many times he was going to have to defend his decision not to use something similar.
“Going with something like that is going to work against us in this situation, Aleksei. And we’d have to deal with a certain amount of backlash and scrutiny that I think we both agree we don’t want to deal with. We have to be very careful about controlling our image.”
“Charities can’t run on good intentions, Stephen.”
It was impossible to know if the statement’s irony was intended and whether an acknowledgement of the joke was required. In the end, Trent decided to pretend he hadn’t heard. “We’re still refining the campaign and I agree that it could be more hard-hitting. Give us another week and we’ll send you something with a little more polish. I think you’ll be happy with it.”
Fedorov clearly wasn’t convinced, but appeared willing to move on. “Have you hired someone to take over the farming project?”
“I met with the last candidate yesterday.”
Trent sat down at his desk and slid a file across it. Fedorov made no move to pick it up, glancing disinterestedly at it from his position in the center of the office.
“His name is Josh Hagarty,” Trent said. “He graduated from high school with a very average GPA—essentially As in things he was interested and Ds in things he wasn’t. After he graduated, he went to work for an auto shop near his home and, well, wasn’t exactly a model citizen.”
Fedorov remained silent, but for the first time that night, his expression showed a hint of approval.
“He had a few minor arrests for things like disorderly conduct and marijuana possession, but nothing stuck. Then he got drunk and drove into a tree. He survived, but his friend in the passenger seat was killed. Josh spent a year in jail for vehicular manslaughter.”
“And what did he learn in prison?” Fedorov asked.
“Apparently, that he didn’t want to go back. When he was released, he enrolled in a community college, got straight As, transferred to a four-year college, and graduated near the top of his class in engineering.”
“He didn’t find Jesus, did he? I hate those fucking people.”
“He doesn’t attend church and there’s no mention of religiosity from our private investigators.”
Fedorov nodded noncommittally.
“Because of his background, he didn’t get any good job offers and that prompted him to pursue an MBA. He’s just now graduating, again near the top of his class, despite holding a full-time job the entire time.”
“And he’s drowning in student and every other kind of debt. He has a sister he’s extremely close to who’ll be graduating from high school next year and he doesn’t have the money to send her to college.”
“Are any other companies sniffing around him?”
“He’s had a fair number of interviews but, even with his qualifications, his background has kept him from getting any offers. He does have a meeting next week with a small company near his school called Alder Data Systems. They don’t have a terribly sophisticated hiring process and, according to our people, they may have overlooked his problems with the law.”
“I take it we’re going to fix that?”
“It’s being taken care of as we speak.”
“So what’s the final verdict?”
“There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate, but he’s smart as hell, charismatic, good-looking, and well-educated. But more importantly, he’s desperate—for money, to rise above his upbringing, to prove he’s changed. He’s no angel, and he has a sister who’s important to him. I’m not sure it would be possible to find someone who fits the profile you created any better.”
Fedorov’s expression darkened subtly. “I told you the last one would be a problem. But you didn’t listen to me.”
“You have to understand that—”
“What I understand,” he cut in, “is that I’m not here to fix your stupid mistakes. What you should understand is that I’m holding you personally responsible this time.”
The heat and the crush of the people in the market square started to close in on him and Josh ducked down an alley, happy to trade the chaos and billowing smoke for shade and the smell of urine.
The thick walls of the buildings on either side deadened out the sound of the plaza and the increasing quiet seemed almost serene as he penetrated deeper. He was going to be alright. He’d just arrived in Africa. Had he ever thought this was going to be easy? That he was going to roll in here and turn an entire continent around over a long weekend?
He was too lost in thought to notice the footsteps coming up behind him until someone grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. He managed to get an arm up and deflect the club before it connected with his head, but the force of the blow still knocked him back against the wall of the narrow alley.
There were two of them, both probably in their teens, and both shouting with the same unbridled fury that he’d seen in Gideon at the airport. Adrenaline quickly cleared his head and the instincts he’d developed in jail turned out to still be with him.
“Take it easy,” he said, trying to buy some time in a situation that he was already certain wasn’t going to end diplomatically. A quick glance in either direction confirmed that his attackers knew exactly what they were doing. There were no windows looking down on them and no doors to run for. To his left, the alley dead-ended in about thirty feet and they had blocked off any hope of an escape back to the plaza.
“You want my money? I don’t have much, but you’re welcome to it.” He began to reach for his pocket, but when he did, they charged. Josh focused on the one with the club, ducking just in time for it to pass over his head and strike the wall behind him with the sound of splintering wood. As it did, though, the other attacker’s foot slammed into his chest.
The bottom of his foot was hard from a life spent shoeless, but nowhere near as damaging as the boots favored by the people he’d occasionally tangled with in his youth. He managed to catch hold of the man’s foot and flip him onto his back in the dirt.
The path out of the alley was clear and he threw himself in that direction, stumbling when a hand slapped at his ankle.
He regained his balance quickly, but the split-second delay gave his other attacker time to catch him and his lower back took a hard shot from the club that hadn’t been as damaged as he’d hoped.
This time he wasn’t able to maintain his footing and he landed hard on his stomach, skidding across the dirt and slamming into the wall to his right. The sensation of a hand snatching the wallet from his back pocket prompted him to instinctively roll on his back and grab at the man’s wrist. The loss of a few dollars and his IDs, though, shrank to insignificance when he saw the club, almost entirely intact, arcing toward his skull.
Josh tried to release the man and use his hand to deflect the club, but he anticipated the move and clamped a sweating hand over Josh’s forearm.
The combination of being out in the sun all day, jet lag, and the disorientation of being so far from home, made it hard to comprehend exactly what was happening. It was simple, though. In less than a second, the club was going to land and he was going to die lying in an alley thousands of miles from home. For nothing. For a wallet containing barely enough money to buy a Big Mac and fries.
Josh closed his eyes and tensed, hearing the sound of an impact but not feeling anything. No pain, which he supposed was understandable, but also no disorientation or loss of consciousness. No blinding light surrounded by harp-playing angels.
The pressure around his forearm disappeared and he opened his eyes to discover that he wasn’t on his way to the afterlife and there were now four men in the alley—all fighting. The one with the club was on the ground and absorbed a kick to the head so vicious that Josh felt his own stomach roll over when it struck. The man who he’d knocked to the ground tried to run but quickly discovered that, just as he had planned, there was nowhere to go. He was now on all fours trying desperately to dislodge the man on his back before he could snake an arm fully around his throat.
There was something about the man on top that was familiar—the way he moved, the wiry power of his arms, the obsidian black of his skin. Josh’s mind was still struggling to fully realize that he was still alive and because of this it took a few seconds longer for him to realize that he actually knew one of his saviors.
The man beneath Tfmena Llengambi was much larger and younger, but so far he hadn’t been able to use that advantage to escape. One of his hands came off the ground and dipped into his waistband, reappearing a moment later with something that gleamed dully in the sunlight angling into the alley.
Adrenaline hit Josh again full force and he managed to get to his feet, sprinting the few yards to the struggling men and sliding across the dirt on his chest, to catch the man’s hand as it swung the knife toward Tfmena’s ribs.
It was the opening the older man had been looking for and he picked up a broken piece of concrete, bringing it down on the back of the man’s head with a sickening crunch. Josh released the now limp arm, pedaling his feet in front of him as he scooted away, Tfmena brought the block down again and again until blood and brains mingled with the dirt.
And then it was silent again. Josh glanced back and saw that his other attacker wasn’t in much better condition, having become the victim of his own club, now in the hands of a twenty-something man wearing a Britney Spears concert T-shirt over a heaving chest.
Tfmena stood and held a steady hand out to help Josh to his feet. When it looked like Josh would be able to stand under his own power, Tfmena brushed the dust off him and gazed at him with a calm expression that seemed to contain just slightly less disdain than it had before.
Tfmena picked up Josh’s wallet and held it out to him, saying something in Yvimbo that was strangely easy to decipher. “Get out of here. This is none of your business anymore.”