Michael Niemann is an author I like to follow. His popular Valentin Vermeulen series follows a UN investigator to exotic places around the world. His thrillers are well-plotted and crisp stories. His new book Illegal Holdings is the third in his Vermeulen series. Here is a synopsis of Illegal Holdings:
UN fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen is on assignment in Maputo, Mozambique. His ho-hum 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.
Illegal Holdings is available in all formats. Here is an excerpt:
“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 wouldn’t make a mistake or a joke.
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 last 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.”
Here is Niemann’s bio:
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. After taking a fiction writing course from his friend, the late Fred Pfeil, he switched to mysteries as a different way to write about the world.”
Find Michael online here: