The Marco Effect
An Excerpt From
The Marco Effect
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Jussi Adler-Olsen


PROLOGUE

Autumn 2008




Louis Fon’s last morning was as soft as a whisper.

He sat up on the cot with sleep in his eyes and his mind still a muddle, patted the little one who had stroked his cheek, wiped the snot from the tip of her brown nose, and stuck his feet into his flip-flops on the stamped clay of the floor.

He stretched, squinting at the light as the cackle of hens and the distant cries of boys as they cut bananas from the palms drifted into the sunbaked room.

How peaceful it seemed as he took in the sharp aromas of the village. Only the songs of the Baka people when they gathered around their fires on the other side of the river could delight him more. As always, it felt good to return to the Dja region, and to the remote Bantu village of Somolomo.

Behind the hut, children were at play, whirling up the dust from the red earth, shrill voices prompting congregations of weaver birds to burst from the surrounding treetops.

He got to his feet and went toward the light that flooded in from the window, placing his elbows on the sill and beaming a smile at the girl’s mother who stood by the hut opposite and was about to sever the head of the day’s chicken.

It was the last time Louis would ever smile.

Some two hundred meters away a sinewy man and his escort appeared from the path by the palm grove, an ominous sign right from the start. He recognized Mbomo’s muscular frame from Yaoundé, but he had never seen the Caucasian with the chalk-white hair.

“Why is Mbomo here and who’s that with him?” he called out to the girl’s mother.

She gave a shrug. Tourists were not an unusual sight on the edge of the rain forest, so why should she be concerned? Four or five days’ trekking with the Baka in the dense chaos of the Dja jungle, wasn’t that what it was all about? At least for a European with plenty of money?

But Louis sensed something more. He could tell by the gravity of the two men and the attitude between them. Something wasn’t right. The white man was no tourist, and Mbomo had no business here in the district without first having informed Louis. After all, Louis was in charge of the Danish development project and Mbomo was merely an errand boy for the government officials in Yaoundé. Such were the roles.

Were the two men up to something he wasn’t to know about? The idea was by no means unlikely. Strange things went on all the time in the course of the project. Processes were slow, the flow of information had all but dried up, payments were continually delayed or else never transpired. Not exactly what he’d been promised when they hired him for the job.

Louis shook his head. He was a Bantu himself, from the opposite corner of Cameroon, hundreds of kilometers northwest of the village here in the borderland close to Congo. Where he came from, a suspicious nature was something you were born with and perhaps the single most important reason Louis had devoted his life to working for the gentle Baka, the pygmy people of the Dja jungle, whose origins traced back to the time when the forests were virgin. People in whose language malicious words such as “suspicion” did not even exist.

For Louis, these amiable souls were a human oasis of good feeling in an otherwise loathsome world. The close relationships he had established with the Baka and their homeland were Louis’s elixir and solace. And yet this suspicion of malice was now upon him.

Could he never be truly free of it?

He found Mbomo’s 4x4 parked behind the third row of huts, its driver fast asleep behind the wheel in a sweat-drenched soccer jersey.

“Is Mbomo looking for me, Silou?” he asked the stocky black man, who stretched his limbs and struggled to get his bearings.

The man shook his head. Apparently he had no idea what Louis was talking about.

“Who is the white man Mbomo has with him? Do you know him?” Louis persisted.

The driver yawned.

“Is he a Frenchman?”

“No,” came the reply, Silou shrugging his shoulders. “He speaks some
French, but I think he is from the north.”

“OK.” Louis felt the unease in his stomach. “Could he be a Dane?”

The driver pointed an index finger at him.

Bingo!

That was it. And Louis didn’t like it one bit.



When Louis wasn’t fighting for the future of the Baka, he was fighting for the animals of the forest. Every village surrounding the Baka’s jungle fostered young Bantus armed with rifles, and every day scores of mandrill and antelope fell prey to their bullets.

Though relations were tense between Louis and the poachers, he remained pragmatic enough not to turn down a lift through the bush on the back of one of their motorcycles. Three kilometers along narrow paths to the Baka village in just six minutes. Who could say no when time was of the essence?

Even as the mud-built huts appeared in front of them Louis knew what had happened, for only the smallest of the children and hungry dogs came running out to greet him.

Louis found the village chief lying flat out on a bed of palm leaves, a cloud of alcohol fumes lingering in the air above. Strewn on the ground around the semiconscious Mulungo were empty whisky bottles like the ones they thrust into your face on the other side of the river. There was no doubt the binge had gone on through the night and, judging by the silence that prevailed, it seemed equally plain that just about all the villagers had taken part.

He poked his head inside the overpopulated huts of mud and bowed palm branches, finding only a few adults capable of acknowledging his presence with a sluggish nod in his direction.

This is how they make the natives toe the line and keep their mouths shut, he thought. Just give them alcohol and drugs and they’d be in the palm of your hand.

That was it exactly.

He went back to the musty hut and kicked the chief hard in the side, causing Mulungo’s wiry body to give a start. A sheepish smile revealed a set of needle-sharp teeth, but Louis wasn’t about to be appeased.

He gestured toward the litter of bottles.

“What did you do for the money, Mulungo?” he asked.

The Baka chief lifted his head and gave a shrug. “Reason” was a concept not much used in the bush.

“Mbomo gave you the money, didn’t he? How much did he give you?”

“Ten thousand francs!” came the reply. Exact sums, especially of this order, were by contrast a matter in which the Baka took considerable interest.

Louis nodded. That bastard Mbomo. Why had he done it?

“Ten thousand,” he said. “And how often does Mbomo do this?”

Mulungo shrugged again. Time was a relative concept.

“I see you people haven’t planted the new crops as you were supposed to. Why not?”

“The money has not arrived, Louis. You know that, surely?”

“Not arrived, Mulungo? I’ve seen the transfer documents myself. The money was sent more than a month ago.”

What had happened? This was the third time reality had failed to match up with the paperwork.

Louis raised his head. Beyond the sibilant song of the cicadas, an alien sound became audible. As far as he could make out, it was a small motorcycle.

Mbomo was already on his way, Louis would bet on it. Perhaps he came to offer a plausible explanation. Louis hoped so.

He looked around. Something was certainly not right here, to say the least, but that would soon change. For although Mbomo was a head taller than Louis and had arms as strong as a gorilla’s, Louis was not afraid of him.

If the Baka were unable to answer his questions, the big man could do so himself: Why had he come? Where was the money? Why had they not begun to plant? And who was the white man Mbomo had been with?

That’s what he wanted to know.

So he stood on the open ground in the middle of the village and waited as the cloud of dust that rose up above the steaming bush slowly approached.

Even before Mbomo dismounted, Louis would go to meet him, throw his arms wide and confront him. He would threaten him with brimstone and fire and exposure to the authorities. He would tell him to his face that if he had been embezzling funds intended to help secure the Baka’s existence here in the forest, the next thing Mbomo would lay his itchy fingers on would be the bars of a cell in the Kondengui prison.

The mere mention of the place would frighten the wits out of anyone.

And then the cicadas’ song was drowned out by the noise of the small
engine.

As the motorcycle came out of the bush and entered the open ground, its tinny horn sounding, Louis noticed the heavy box on the Kawasaki’s pannier rack, and then the village came alive. Sleepy heads popped out from door openings and the more alert of the men emerged as though the subdued sloshing that issued from the box were an omen from the gods of the coming of the deluge.

Mbomo first handed out whisky bags to the many outstretched hands, then stared threateningly at Louis.

Louis knew the score at once. The machete slung over Mbomo’s shoulder was warning enough. If he didn’t retreat, it would be used against him. And with the state the pygmies were in, he would be unable to count on their help.

“There’s more where this comes from,” Mbomo declared, dumping the rest of the alcohol bags from the box onto the ground and at the same moment turning to face Louis.

As Louis instinctively began to run he heard the excited cries of the Baka behind him. If Mbomo catches me I’m done for, he thought, his eyes seeking out openings in the bush or tools the Baka might have left on the ground. Anything at all that might be used against the man who now pursued him.

Louis was lithe, much more agile than Mbomo, who had lived all his life in Douala and Yaoundé and had not learned to be wary of the undergrowth’s treacherous fabric of twisted roots, mounds, and hollows. For that reason he felt reassured as the sound of heavy footsteps behind him faded and the unfathomable network of tributary paths leading to the river opened out before him.

Now all he had to do was find one of the dugout canoes before Mbomo caught up with him. As soon as Louis crossed the river he would be safe. The people of Somolomo would protect him.

A pungent, damp smell wafted like a breeze through the green-brown bush, and an experienced guide such as Louis knew the signs. Another hundred meters and the river would be there, but the next second he was stumbling out into a swamp that sucked him down to his knees.

For a moment his arms flailed. If he didn’t find a sturdy plant to grab hold of, the mud would swallow him up in no time. And if he was too slow to extract himself, Mbomo would be on top of him. Even now the sound of his tramping feet seemed too close for comfort.

He filled his lungs with air, pressed his mouth shut, and stretched his upper body as far as he could until his joints creaked. Thin branches came away in his hand, leaves fell into his wide-open eyes. It only took fifteen seconds for him to get a hold and pull himself up, but it was two seconds too many. There was a rustling in the undergrowth and then the sudden blow of the machete from behind, lodging itself deep into Louis’s shoulder blade. The pain came swift and searing.

Instinctively Louis concentrated on remaining upright. And for that reason alone he was able to come free of the mire and get away, as Mbomo’s curses sounded through the trees.

He too had fallen foul of the swamp.

Only when Louis reached the river did he become aware of the full intensity of the pain and feel how his shirt was clinging to his back.

Drained of all energy, he sank to his knees at the water’s edge. And at that moment Louis Fon realized he was about to die.

As his body toppled forward and the fine gravel of the shore mingled with his hair, he managed to pull his phone from the side pocket of his pants and tap the Messages icon.

Every key press was accompanied by a frenzied beat of his heart as it pumped blood out of his body, and when the message was written and he tapped “Send,” he faintly registered that there was no signal.

The last thing Louis Fon sensed was the pounding of heavy footsteps on the ground next to him. And then, finally, the phone being prized from his hand.



Mbomo Ziem was satisfied. The lunging of the 4x4 over the potholes of the dark red track through the jungle toward the junction and the main road to Yaoundé would soon cease and the man beside him had thankfully refrained from passing comment on events. Everything was as it should be. He had shoved Louis Fon’s body into the river. The current and the crocodiles would take care of the rest.

All in all, things had gone well. The only person who could have posed a threat to their activities had been eliminated, and the future was once again bright.

Mission accomplished, as they said.

Mbomo looked down at the mobile phone he had snatched from the dying man’s hand. A few francs spent on a new SIM card and his son’s birthday present would be taken care of.

And as he pictured the gleeful smile on the boy’s face, the display lit up in his hand to indicate the signal had returned.

Then a few seconds passed before a discreet little beep confirmed that a text message had been sent.









1

Autumn 2008




René E. Eriksen had never been a cautious man. It was perhaps why he had gone from success to failure and back again in an endless chain of unpredictable events, which in the greater perspective nonetheless gave rise to a certain degree of satisfaction with his life. At the end of the day he put it all down to some kind of innate luck.

Yet in spite of this, René was by nature a pensive soul. When faced by the big questions and confrontations of childhood, he had often sought refuge behind his mother’s skirts. Accordingly, in adult life he instinctively made sure always to have a reasonably foolproof exit strategy on hand when casting himself into uncharted depths.

For that reason he had taken time to think things through when his good friend and former schoolmate Teis Snap, now managing director of Karrebæk Bank, had called him up that afternoon at his office in the ministry and put forward a proposal a man in René’s elevated public position under normal circumstances would have considered highly inappropriate.

The bank crises had yet to begin wreaking havoc, but these were days in which the greed of speculators and the irresponsibility of government financial policy were becoming plain to anyone who earned a living lending money.

That was why Teis Snap called.

“I’m afraid to say that Karrebæk Bank will go bust within two months unless we can get our hands on extra capital,” he’d said.

“What about my shares?” René blurted out with a frown, his heart already pounding at the thought of the first-class retirement under Mediterranean palms he had been promised now collapsing like a house of cards.

“What can I say? If we don’t come up with something drastic right away, we’re going to lose everything we own. That’s the reality of the matter, I’m afraid,” Snap replied.

The silence that ensued was a pause between friends. The kind of interlude that left no room for protest or more abstract comment.

René allowed his head to drop for a moment and inhaled so deeply it hurt. So this was the situation, and swift action was imperative. He felt his stomach knot, perspiration cold on his brow, but as head of office in the Evaluation Department for Development Assistance he was used to forcing his mind to think clearly under duress.

He exhaled. “Extra capital, you say? And what would that involve, more exactly?”

“Two hundred, perhaps two hundred and fifty million kroner over four to five years.”

Sweat trickled down under René’s collar. “For Christ’s sake, Teis! That’s fifty million a year!”

“I’m aware of that, and I find it most regrettable indeed. We’ve done everything in our power to draw up contingency plans these past four weeks, but our customer base just isn’t stable enough. The last two years we’ve been far too eager to lend out money without sufficient security. We know that now, with the property market collapsing.”

“Dammit! We need to do something quick. Haven’t we got time to withdraw our personal assets?”

“I’m afraid it’s already too late, René. The shares have plummeted this morning, and all trading’s temporarily suspended.”

“I see.” René noted how cold his voice suddenly sounded. “And what do you expect me to do about it? I’m assuming you’re not just calling to tell me you’ve squandered my savings, are you? I know you, Teis. How much did you salvage for yourself?”

His old friend sounded offended, but his voice was clear: “Nothing, René, not a penny, I swear. The accountants intervened. Not all accountancy firms are prepared to step in with creative solutions in a situation like this. The reason I’m calling is because I think I may have found a way out, one that might also be quite lucrative for you.”

And thus the swindle was initiated. It had been running for several months now, and things had gone smoothly indeed until a minute ago when the department’s most experienced staff member, William Stark, suddenly appeared, waving a sheet of paper in front of him.

“OK, Stark,” said René. “So you’ve received some contorted text message from Louis Fon and haven’t been able to get in touch with him since. But you know as well as I do that Cameroon is a long way from here and connections aren’t reliable, even at the best of times, so don’t you suppose that might be where the problem lies?”

Unfortunately Stark appeared less than convinced, and at that moment a warning of potential chaos in René’s future seemed to materialize.

Stark pressed his already thin lips into a pencil line. “But how can we be sure?” He gazed pensively at the floor, his unruly red bangs drooping down in front of his eyes. “All I know is that this text message came in when you were on your way back from Cameroon. And nobody’s seen Louis Fon since. No one.”

“Hmm. But if he’s still in the Dja region, mobile phone coverage is practically nonexistent.” René reached across the desk. “Let me see that message, Stark.”

René tried to keep his hand steady as Stark handed him the sheet of paper.

He read the message:

Cfqquptiondae(s+l)la(i+l)ddddddvdlogdmdntdja

He wiped the treacherous perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand. Thank God. It was gibberish.

“Well, it does seem rather odd, Stark, I’ll grant you that. The question is, does it warrant further attention? It looks to me like the phone just went haywire in Louis Fon’s pocket,” he said, putting the paper down on the desk. “I’ll have someone follow up on it, but I can tell you that Mbomo Ziem and I were in contact with Louis Fon the same day we drove to Yaoundé and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. He was packing for his next expedition. With some Germans, as far as I remember.”

William Stark peered at him darkly and shook his head.

“You say it probably doesn’t warrant further attention, but have a look at the message again. Do you think it’s coincidental that it ends on the word “Dja”? I don’t. I think Louis Fon was trying to tell me something and that something serious may have happened to him.”

René pursed his lips. In all ministerial posts it was a question of never appearing dismissive of even the most ridiculous hypothesis. That much he had learned over the years.

Which is why he replied with, “Yes, it is a bit strange, isn’t it?”

René reached for his Sony Ericsson that was lying on the windowsill behind him. “‘Dja,’ you say.” He studied the phone’s keypad and nodded. “Yes, it could be accidental. Look, D, J, and A are the first letters on their respective keys. Press three, five, and two and you’ve got ‘dja.’” Not impossible while it’s just lying in a person’s pocket, though the odds would certainly seem slender. So, yes, it definitely is strange. I just reckon we should wait a few days and see if Louis turns up. In the meantime I’ll get in touch with Mbomo.”

He watched William Stark as he left the office, following his every movement until the door was shut. Again he wiped his brow. So it was Louis Fon’s mobile Mbomo had been playing around with in the Land Rover on their way back to the capital.

Idiot!

He clenched his fists and shook his head. Mbomo being infantile enough to steal the mobile from Fon’s body was one thing, quite another was that he had not come clean when René asked him about it. And how the hell could the big dope have been stupid enough not to check for unsent messages? If he’d stolen the phone from the body, why hadn’t he removed the battery as a matter of course, or at least reset its memory? What kind of imbecile would steal a phone from the man he had just killed, anyway?

He shook his head again. Mbomo was a clown, but right now the problem wasn’t Mbomo, it was William Stark. In fact, Stark had been a danger all along. Hadn’t he said that from the start? Hadn’t he told Teis Snap the same thing?

Bugger it! No one possessed an overview of the department’s agreements and budget frameworks comparable to Stark’s. No one was anywhere near as meticulous as he in the evaluation of the ministry’s projects. So if anyone could uncover René’s misuse of development funds, it was William Stark.

René took a deep breath and considered his next move. The options weren’t exactly multiple.

“If ever you should run into problems in this matter,” Teis Snap had said, “then call us immediately.”

That was what he now intended to do.



2

Autumn 2008





There weren’t many people to whom William Stark could turn for a piece of professional advice.

In the gray world of the civil service, he was in charge of but a small island to which few wished to sail. If he felt unable to approach his head of office, the only other person available to him seemed to be the head of the department, but who would go to the head of the department with a suspicion of this nature—and, more particularly, of this magnitude—without first having secured tangible evidence? Not him, that was for sure.

To any superior in the upper echelons of the government services who happened to be reasonably kindly disposed, an underling who sounded the alarm on suspicion of abuse of office or other irregularities in the execution of government business was called a whistle-blower. Ostensibly this was laudable, like a siren warning of impending ambush, but if one were to press the point with these civil service officers, one would invariably find that such a person was considered to be a snitch, and snitches seldom fared well. In modern-day Denmark there were examples aplenty. One recent instance was that of an agent of the Danish military’s intelligence service who was handed a prison sentence for having demonstrated that the country’s prime minister had withheld vital information from parliament in order to lead his country into war in Iraq. Not exactly the kind of attitude that encourages candor.

Besides, William was not one hundred percent certain. Though the thought had played on his mind for some time, it was all still little more than an inkling.

After having briefed his head of office, René E. Eriksen, about Louis Fon’s text message he had made at least ten calls to various individuals in Cameroon, people he knew the loyal Bantu activist was in regular contact with, and in each case he had encountered bewilderment at the fact that this untiring spirit should have been silent even for a few days.

Thus it was that just this morning William had finally gotten through to Fon’s home in Sarki Mata and spoken to his wife, whom Fon had always made a point of keeping updated as to his whereabouts and how long he was planning to be away.

It was obvious his wife was anxious. The woman kept bursting into tears and was convinced her husband had fallen foul of poachers. What they might have done to him was something she could not yet bring herself to think about. The jungle was so vast and contained so many secrets. Louis had told her so on countless occasions. Things happened there, as she said. William, too, knew this to be true.

Of course, there could be any number of reasons for Fon not having been in touch. Temptations abounded in Cameroon and who could guess as to what a handsome man in the prime of his life might succumb to? The girls in that part of Africa were not exactly known to be timid or lacking in initiative, so the possibility that Fon was simply shagging his brains out in a grass hut and allowing the world to revolve as it saw fit was certainly not to be discounted. William almost found himself smiling at the idea.

But then he thought about what had happened before this situation arose, about how the first phase of the Baka project had proceeded. That fifty million kroner had been rushed through the ministry to ensure the continued existence of the pygmy population in such a far-flung corner as the Dja jungle was odd enough in itself. And why specifically the Baka, as opposed to any other people? Why such a generous sum?

Yes, William had wondered right from the start.

Two hundred and fifty million kroner over five years wasn’t much in a total development budget of some fifteen billion a year, but still, when was the last time such a limited project had received such massive funding? Had they targeted the entire pygmy population of the Congo jungle, the second-largest primeval forest in the world, he might have been able to understand. But they hadn’t.

And when the funding was approved, even an idiot with half an eye could have seen that normal procedure had been ignored on several issues. It was at this point that William’s instincts had been activated. In essence, development aid in this case merely meant the transfer of funds to government officials in Yaoundé, leaving it up to the locals to take things from there. And this in a country generally considered to be one of the world’s most corrupt.

For William Stark, a public servant in every sense of the word—and yet not without his own history of error—this was a worrisome situation. Therefore, in light of the turns the case had taken during the last few days, he now looked upon the role of his superior in these proceedings with new eyes.

When had René E. Eriksen ever taken such a personal interest before? When had he last flown out to oversee the commencement of a project? It had been years, surely.

Granted, that fact in itself might conceivably serve to guarantee that everything about the project was aboveboard and subject to the appropriate controls, but it could also indicate the opposite was true. God forbid. Eriksen of all people could foresee the consequences: years of the department’s work being upended and scrutinized. It simply mustn’t happen.

“Ruminating, eh, Stark?” came a voice, sneaking up from behind.

It had been months since he had heard that voice in his own office, and William looked up with surprise at his superior’s unpleasant smile. The man’s face looked all wrong beneath his chalk-white hair.

“I’ve just spoken to our contacts in Yaoundé and they feel the same as you,” said Eriksen. “There is something wrong, they say, so your assumptions are probably right. According to them, Louis Fon may have done a bunk with some of the funding and now they want someone from the ministry to get down there and audit their payouts to the project from day one. Most likely they reckon it’ll cover their asses in the event of anyone pointing a finger at them in the case of irregularities. If you should find any, that is.”

“Me?” Was Eriksen intending to send him down there? William was confused. This was a development he hadn’t seen coming and certainly one he didn’t care for. “Do they know how much he might have ripped them off for?” he added.

Eriksen shook his head. “No one seems to have a clear idea as yet, but Fon has about two million euros at his disposal for the period. Maybe he’s just out making purchases and is clean. Maybe he found out that the seeds and plants are cheaper or better quality somewhere other than where he usually buys. At any rate we need to pursue the matter. After all, it’s what we’re here for.”

“True . . . ,” said William. “But I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on this one.”

Eriksen’s smile vanished. “I see. And on what grounds, if I might ask?”

“My partner’s child is in the hospital at the moment.”

“I see. Again? And what bearing does that have?”

“Well, I support them both as best I can. They live with me.”

Eriksen nodded. “It’s highly commendable of you to put them first, Stark, but we’re talking two or three days at most. I’m sure you’ll be able to work it out. We’ve already booked you on a flight to Brussels and onward. After all, it’s part of your job, you know. There were no seats left to Yaoundé, I’m afraid, so you’ll be flying to Douala instead. Mbomo will pick you up at the airport and drive you to the capital from there. It only takes about two hours.”

William pictured his stepdaughter lying in her hospital bed. He wasn’t pleased at this new prospect.

“Are you sending me because I was the one who received Louis Fon’s text?” he asked.

“No, Stark. I’m sending you because you’re our best man.”



The word on Mbomo Ziem was that he was a man of action. This he demonstrated outside Douala International Airport, where half a dozen aggressive men squabbled over the rights to carry William’s luggage.

“Your taxi is waiting, sir! This way, come on!” they implored, yanking at the suitcase wherever they could get a grip.

But Mbomo shoved them away, indicating with a brutal glare that he was not afraid to take on the whole pack of bearers to save his boss a couple of thousand francs.

He was a big man, this Mbomo. William had seen photos of him, but he had been standing next to diminutive Bakas, who made any non-pygmy look like a giant. Here in real life he realized that not only the Baka appeared small in Mbomo’s presence, for the man towered like a cliff above the human landscape, and for that reason it seemed only natural that the word “security” should be applied to him amid this mad spectacle of frenzied men, each fighting for the privilege of lugging his suitcase and thereby perhaps earning the chance of a small meal.

“You’ll be staying at the Aurelia Palace,” Mbomo informed him as their taxi finally pulled away from the bearers and a couple of men hawking cheap jewelry who ran on behind, hopeful until the last second. “Your meeting at the ministry is tomorrow morning. I’ll come by personally and pick you up. Unlike Douala here, Yaoundé is a fairly safe place, but you never know.” He laughed, his whole upper body quaking, though no sound passed his lips.

William’s gaze turned to the glowing sun as it sank beneath the treetops and to clusters of laborers idling along by the side of the road, machetes hanging limply from tired hands.

Apart from the packed minicabs, the speedy 4x4s, and the clattering pickups constantly passing them and putting everyone’s lives at risk in the process, only battered, heavily laden trucks with broken headlights were on the road. It was no wonder that much of the wreckage that lined the dusty highway had a close resemblance to the vehicles upon it.

William was a long way from home.



Having carefully chosen his menu, William sat down in a corner of the lounge where there was a chair; a sofa with thick, patterned covers reminiscent of the seventies; and a timeworn coffee table on which a pair of dewy glasses of beer had already been placed.

“I always get two in at a time whenever I’m down here,” said the corpulent man seated next to him, speaking in English. “The beer’s so thin it trickles out of the pores again as quickly as you can get it inside you.” He chuckled.

He pointed at the necklace that William was wearing, with the small masks hanging from it. “I can tell you’ve just arrived in Africa. You must have run into some of those jewelry bandits out at the airport.”

“Yes and no.” William fingered the necklace. “I’ve just got here, yes, but I’ve had this for a number of years. It is African, though. I found it once when I was inspecting a project in Kampala.”

“Ah, Kampala. One of Uganda’s more interesting cities.” He raised his glass to William. Judging by the diplomatic-looking bag, he too was a civil servant.

William produced his portfolio from his leather briefcase and placed it on the table. To begin with there was the specific issue of fifty million kroner and how to channel it on to the Baka project. Then there were a number of documents to be skimmed and a series of questions to be prepared. He opened the manila folder and arranged its entire contents in three piles in front of him. One containing spreadsheets, a second comprising project descriptions, and a third of memos, e-mails, and other correspondence. Even the yellow Post-it note was there, with Louis Fon’s text message jotted down on it.

“Do you mind if I sit and do some work here? There seems to be no desk in my room.”

The man replied with a friendly nod.

“Danish?” the man asked, indicating the logo of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the head of the documents.

“Yes, and you?”

“Stockholm.” The man extended his hand and switched to Swedish. “First time in Cameroon?”

William nodded.

“In that case, welcome,” the man said, shoving his extra glass of beer across the table toward him. “Cameroon isn’t a place a person ever gets completely used to, you know. Skål.”

They raised their glasses, the Swede downing his in one gulp and then gesturing toward the waiter for a refill, all in one seamless movement. Alcoholic public officials like him were a regular feature in equatorial regions, as William well knew. He had seen a number of their own people return home firing on less than all cylinders after a stationing abroad.

“You might think I’m given to drink, but you’d be wrong,” said the Swede, as though having read William’s thoughts. “Truth is, I just pre- tend to be.”

He pointed discreetly toward a sofa arrangement at which were seated two black men in light-colored suits.

“They’re from the company I’m negotiating with tomorrow. At the moment they’re checking me out and in an hour or so they’ll report back to their boss on what they’ve seen.” He smiled. “No skin off my nose if they think I’ll be turning up the worse for wear.”

“You’re in business, then?”

“You could say. I close contracts for Sweden. I’m a controller, and a good one at that.” He nodded to the waiter who appeared with his next two beers and raised one to William. “Skål, then!”

William tried in vain to keep up with the Swede’s liquid intake. A good thing he wasn’t playing the same game. His stomach wasn’t geared to it.

I see you’ve got a coded message.” The Swede indicated the yellow
Post-it note in front of William.

“Well, I’m not sure, to be honest. It’s a text message that came in from a partner of ours who disappeared down here a week ago.”

“A text message?” The man laughed. “A beer says I can decode it in less than ten.”

William frowned. Decode it? What did he mean?

The Swede took the note, placed a blank sheet of paper in front of him, pulled out his Nokia mobile from his pocket and put it down on the table.

“It’s not likely to be a code, if that’s what you think,” William said. “That wouldn’t really be how we operate in the ministry. Frankly, though, we’ve no idea what it’s all about, or why it should look like that.”

“OK. Written under difficult circumstances, perhaps?”

“Perhaps. We can’t ask the man. Like I said, he’s disappeared.”

The Swede put pen to paper and began to write:

Cfqquptiondae(s+l)la(i+l)ddddddvdlogdmdntdja.

Beneath each letter he wrote another, all the while glancing at his mobile.

After a couple of minutes he looked up at William.

“Let’s assume the message was indeed written under difficult circumstances, like I said. In the dark, maybe. I suppose you know that when the mobile’s predictive text is turned off each key still represents several characters. Key number three, for instance, is D, E, and F. Press once and you’ve got D. Twice for E, three times for F. Then you can get other characters altogether. Add to that the eventuality of pressing the wrong key, usually the one just above or below the one you want, and all in all you’ve got any number of possible combinations. I’ve done this before, though, and it’s fun. You can start my ten minutes now.”

William frowned again and nodded for the sake of appearance. He couldn’t care less how much time the Swede took. If he could solve the riddle, even partially, the drinks would be on him regardless.

It didn’t look easy by any means, but when the first sequence, Cfqquption, turned out possibly to be a word beginning with “C,” then a typo produced by incorrectly pressing key number three instead of six below it, then twice “Q,” that should have been twice “R,” followed by the correctly typed “uption,” they suddenly had the word Corruption.

William sensed the furrows in his brow deepen.

Corruption. Not exactly a word with the most positive connotations. After a quarter of an hour, and William having bought two more rounds, the Swede had solved the puzzle.

“Well, it seems plausible to me,” he said, studying his notes. He handed the sheet to William.

“Can you see what it says? ‘Corruption dans l’aide de development Dja.’” The Swede nodded to himself. “The French isn’t entirely correct, but still. ‘Swindle with development funds in Dja,’ give or take. Simple as that.”

William felt a chill run down his spine.

He glanced around. Was it him or the Swede that the black men in the corner were watching with such interest? Could there be others?

He looked again at the note in front of him, the Swede once more raising his hand in the direction of the waiter.

Corruption dans l’aide de development Dja was what Louis Fon had texted, and then he’d disappeared. Knowing this was not a pleasant feeling. Not pleasant at all.

William gazed out the window and tried to shield himself against the endless expanse of black beyond the pane.

The thought had occurred to him before, and now it returned.

He was truly a long way from home.

Far too long a way indeed.



“What is it you’re saying, Mbomo?”

René E. Eriksen felt the perspiration gathering in his armpits as he tried to concentrate on the crackling voice.

“I’m telling you that William Stark was not at the hotel this morning when I went to pick him up, and now I have been told he has taken a plane home.”

“For Christ’s sake, Mbomo, how could that happen? He was your responsibility.” René tried to gather his thoughts. The agreement had been that Mbomo or one of his gorillas would pick up Stark at the hotel that same morning and that would be the end of it. Where and how Stark disappeared didn’t matter, as long as it couldn’t be traced back to them. And now he was being told that Stark was on his way home to Denmark. What the hell was going on down there? Had Stark got a whiff of something that might incriminate them?

If he had, it was a disaster.
“What the hell could have happened since last night, Mbomo? Can you answer me that? I thought you had everything under control. Stark must have got wind of something.”

“I don’t know,” Mbomo replied, oblivious to the fact that during the past couple of days René E. Eriksen had been through sheer hell at the thought of having sent a man to his death, and as things now stood was more than willing to go along with anything that might stop this juggernaut nightmare from developing any further.

To René’s mind there was no doubt at all as to what should happen now. Not only must Mbomo Ziem be removed from the Baka project, he had to be removed permanently. No one who was involved in the project had anything to gain from having a man like him charging around and messing things up. A man who knew as much as he did and at the same time was so fucking inefficient and heavy-handed.

“I’ll get back to you, Mbomo. In the meantime I want you to just take things easy. Go home, and stay there. Later today we’ll send someone over who can brief you on what’s going to happen next.”

And then René hung up the phone.

Mbomo would be briefed all right. More than he could ever imagine.



The boardroom of Karrebæk Bank wasn’t humble by any stretch of the imagination. Both the furnishings and the location suggested the headquarters of one of the country’s leading financial institutions, and nothing in the countenance of its managing director, Teis Snap, seemed to suggest otherwise. All that met the eye was extravagant: furniture, fittings, the works. Within these walls overspending had long been par for the course.

“Our chairman, Jens Brage-Schmidt, is listening in on this, René. As you know, he’s in the same boat as us.”

Snap turned toward a walnut speaker cabinet on the imposing desk. “Can you hear us all right, Jens?” he said.

The answer was affirmative, the voice rather squeaky but still replete with authority.

“Then we’ll begin the meeting.” He faced René. “I’m sorry to have to be so frank, René,” Snap said, “but following your conversation with Mbomo earlier today, Jens and I have come to the conclusion that the only solution to our problem is to do everything in our power to stop William Stark, and that in the future you personally are to make sure that no one with Stark’s zeal ever comes anywhere near the Baka project.”

“Stop William Stark?” René repeated the words softly. “And this is to happen in Denmark, is that what you mean?” he added after a pause. It
was mostly here his reservations lay.

“In Denmark, yes. It has to be,” Teis Snap went on. “We’re disarming time bombs here, stopping Louis Fon, and soon Mbomo Ziem and William Stark, too. Once they’re out of the way we’ll be back on track. Officials at the ministry in Yaoundé will stay tight-lipped, of course, since they’re in on this themselves. And if you continue to receive regular reports from some public servant in situ who is willing to call himself Louis Fon for a while and spread the word to your ministry about how magnificently the project is running, then we shall have little to worry about. It’s the way of all African projects. A bit of encouraging news once in a while, that’s all anyone expects, dammit.”

René heard Brage-Schmidt grunt over the speaker, and though he had never met the man there seemed to be an underlying tone to his voice that made René envisage a man who for all too many years had been used to bossing people around in places far beyond the borders of his home country. There was a harshness about the way he began a sentence, as if everything he said was an order not to be disobeyed. The image of a British imperialist or shipping magnate with unfettered powers was easy to conjure up. René had heard that every butler Brage-Schmidt had employed through the years he had addressed as “boy,” and that if anyone knew Africa, it was him: consul for a handful of southern African states for as long as anyone cared to remember and successful businessman in Central Africa even longer, though not always accompanied by the best of reputations.

No, as far as René could make out there seemed little doubt that Brage- Schmidt was the architect of the scam. Teis Snap had told him that after some time as a successful importer of timber from equatorial Africa, Brage-Schmidt had gathered all his assets in Karrebæk Bank and had in the years that followed become the bank’s largest shareholder by far. As such it was hardly surprising that he had been elected chairman, or that he should now guard his fortune so fiercely. René understood this completely, and yet besides their fraud they had now condemned three men to death. So why did René not hear himself protesting?

He shook his head. The fact of the matter was that unfortunately he understood this gray eminence a little too well.

What else could they do?

“Yes,” said the chairman. “Taking such radical steps is certainly no easy decision, but think of the jobs that will be lost, the small savers who will lose their money if we fail to act in time. It is regrettable, of course, that this William Stark should have to pay the price as well, but that’s how it goes sometimes. The few must be sacrificed for the many, as they say, and in a few years everything will be good again. The bank will be safeguarded and consolidated, society will go on as before, investments will continue, jobs will be retained and shareholders will suffer no losses. And who in the meantime, Mr. Eriksen, do you think might bother to check up on how the pygmies of Dja are progressing in agricultural matters? Who would bother to investigate whether schools and health conditions have improved since the project was initiated? Who would even have the means to do so when those who launched the project to begin with are no longer of this world? I ask you.”

Who, indeed, but me? René thought to himself, his eyes wandering to the tall casement windows of the room. Did that mean he, too, was in the danger zone?

But they weren’t going to put one over on him, that much was for sure. He knew where he had them and thankfully could still look over his shoulder on the rare occasion he ventured out.

“I only hope you know what you’re doing and keep it to yourselves, that’s all. I don’t want to know any more, are you with me?” he said after a moment. “And let’s pray that William Stark hasn’t left documentation in some bank box explaining how the fraud came about—as I’ve done.”

He looked at Teis Snap and listened intently to the background noise from the speaker on the desk. Were they shocked? Suspicious?

Seemingly not.

“OK,” he went on. “What you say is true. Maybe no one will notice that Louis Fon’s reports are coming from someone else, but what about William Stark’s disappearance? It’ll be all over the news, surely?”

“That’s right. And . . . ?” Brage-Schmidt’s voice sounded deeper all of a sudden. “As long as nothing can be traced back to us, Stark going missing doesn’t matter much, does it? As I see it, he goes to Africa, fails to turn up for his appointment, flies home without a word, and disappears. Wouldn’t that indicate a certain degree of instability? Would one not be inclined to consider that his disappearance might be of his own volition? I would, certainly.”

Snap and René exchanged glances. Karrebæk Bank’s chairman of the board had chosen to ignore René’s bank-box insurance scheme, so apparently their mutual trust remained intact, albeit perhaps a bit tarnished.

“Listen, Eriksen,” Brage-Schmidt went on. “From here on, everything proceeds exactly according to our agreement. You will continue to ensure that fifty million per annum is dispatched to Cameroon. And once a year on the basis of Louis Fon’s fabricated reports you will draw up a nice summary of how excellently things are progressing down there.”

Then Snap picked up the thread. “Some weeks later, by way of a group of ‘investors’ in Curaçao”—Snap formed quotes in the air—“our friends in Yaoundé will as usual transfer the requisite funds to Karrebæk Bank. The rest we place in private equity in our custody account in Curaçao as a buffer against unexpected developments in the bank sector. In that way, Karrebæk Bank’s equity portfolio gradually changes hands, all the while expanding, and yet in reality we maintain total control. Our portfolios grow larger by the year. Which means the three of us have every good reason to be cheerful. Am I right?”

“Indeed. We’re ‘all’ happy.” This time the air quotes were René’s. “All of us, perhaps, apart from Louis Fon, Mbomo, and William . . .”

Teis Snap broke in. “Look, René, don’t waste your time worrying about Mbomo and Fon. Once things have settled down a bit we’ll donate some cash to their widows so they can get on. The authorities there are used to people disappearing all the time, so no one’s going to make an issue of it. As for Stark, he has no family, does he?”

René shook his head. “No, but he does have a partner and a step-daughter who’s ill.” He stared intensely into Snap’s eyes, as though expecting some display of sympathy, but they were cold as ice.

“Good,” was Snap’s brief response. “No family, then, just a couple of loosely associated individuals. They’ll mourn a while, no doubt, and then life will go on. After all, he was hardly the sort you’d miss much, was he, René?”

René exhaled with a sigh. What was he supposed to say? Since they were already referring to the man in the past tense, what did it matter how interesting a person Stark had been?

But still . . .

The loudspeaker interrupted his thoughts. Brage-Schmidt didn’t bother to comment on the last statement, but then why should he?

“As far as the two hundred and fifty million is concerned, we can with some justification claim it to be a form of camouflaged state subsidy from the Baka project to our continued banking activities. Is it not reasonable that the state be protective of Denmark’s lucrative private companies, like Karrebæk Bank? Enterprises that create jobs, enhance the balance of payments and raise living standards. One way or another the wheels would grind to a halt if reputable banks such as ours were allowed to crash. Hardly what we or the government wish to see now, is it?”

René’s thoughts were somewhere else entirely. If anything went wrong, Snap and Brage-Schmidt would distance themselves in no time at all, that much was certain. And he would be left behind alone, with both the responsibility and a prison sentence. He wasn’t going to let it happen.

“I’ll say it again: what you do from now on is without my knowledge, OK? I don’t want to know. But if you do take such drastic measures, make sure I get Stark’s laptop immediately. Who knows what he might have
tucked away on it concerning our little project.”

“Sure, of course you’ll get it. And yes, we understand how difficult it is for you to take all this in, René. After all, I know you. You’re an upstanding and decent man. But think of your family, OK?” Snap urged. “Just let Jens and me take care of this, and you stop worrying. We’ll contact someone proficient at dealing with this sort of problem, who can arrange for Stark to be intercepted at the airport. In the meantime you can take pleasure in the thought of your stock rising by the day. The future remains bright, René.”

The Marco Effect

The Marco Effect

A Department Q Novel