It was well after dinner, and I waited for Melbourne in my hotel room. “I should be there no later than ten,” he’d said. When midnight came, I was getting antsy and stepped onto the rusty balcony. The hotel wasn’t in the tourist quarter of Djibouti City. People were lounging on stoops along the street below. It was April, and I suppose too hot inside. Yesterday’s rain reflected a luminescent sky in the potholes. A moped sputtered toward the harbor.
There was no sign of Melbourne anywhere.
Of course, he could’ve been delayed at the airport. Traveling with multiple passports in 2009 required a bit of discipline. By then, even small countries could receive the passenger information transmitted by the airlines right after departure. Checking in with one passport and presenting the other upon arrival could raise eyebrows, not that the immigration authorities of Djibouti were known for their facial expressions. Besides, Melbourne had come and gone so often these past months, he probably was on a first-name basis with whoever swiped his documents through the scanner.
I went back inside and stared at my phone. Melbourne’s protocol was, “Don’t text me. I’ll text you. Unless it’s an emergency.” Trouble was, his definition of emergency was as flexible as the sealant bulging from the frame of the balcony door. He could be frantic when the situation was perfectly normal but also calm even though circumstances had careened out of control.
Better give him more time. Melbourne could get rather unpleasant if he were disturbed at the wrong moment. That left me sitting in my stifling room with a useless air-conditioner. I needed a drink.
I went downstairs. Out on the street, a neon sign flashed in the distance. Only the letters ‘B’ and ‘R’ were illuminated. I figured the chances of the middle letter not being an ‘A’ were pretty slim. As I approached, I saw pale light spilling from the door, illuminating drinking patrons outside.
I heard rapid steps behind me. I stopped dead in my tracks. The steps didn’t and someone bumped into me. I spun around, ready to grab whoever was there.
He was a stocky Somali, startled by the sudden impact. He raised his hands, palms out, and said, “Pardon.”
“What do you want?”
“Cherchez-vous Monsieur Melbourne?”
“Do you know where he is?”
He turned and pointed to the opposite end of the street.
“Where is Melbourne?” I said.
“Oui, oui. Monsieur Melbourne.” He took my arm to coax me toward the intersection. I pushed him away. He let go and marched toward the corner. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude told me he was for real.
He brought me to the Boulevard Hassan Goulet, a main thoroughfare of Djibouti. Even at this hour, car and bus traffic was thick. I asked if Melbourne had sent him.
“Monsieur Melbourne est mort,” he said.
Melbourne dead? My throat turned dry as dust. It made no sense. He was a small trader, putting together deals with other people’s money for mutual profits. He wouldn’t show up on anyone’s radar because he was a small fish in a vast ocean. Had he started hanging out with sharks?
A deep breath helped calm the rat’s nest of thoughts zinging through my brain.
A while ago, Melbourne had come across an esoteric item called the Baltic Dry Index. Outside the world of transoceanic shipping, nobody knew about it or couldn’t have cared less if they did. The Baltic Dry Index denoted the cost of shipping dry bulk goods across the oceans. It was calculated daily, based on the cost for representative routes and ship sizes.
The thing that intrigued him most was something called Forward Freight Agreements, basically a way to bet on the value of the Baltic Dry Index at some point in the future.
“You can get in on the action without ever actually having to ship anything,” he’d said. “You put a little money down, and with the right trades, it’s an outstanding opportunity.”
“For what?” I said.
“To make money.”
“On freight futures? You’ve got to be kidding. You’re more likely to lose your shirt.”
That was back at my club in London. I looked at the three empty glasses in front of me. My usual dose was two Scotch, neat, water on the side. Three, when the mood was right. It was often right with Melbourne.
“Listen, old chum,” he’d said. “I know I’ve spun plenty of yarns, and you’ve been more than kind to indulge me over the years. But this ain’t no yarn. I’ve got a plan.”
I should’ve paid my tab then and gone home.
Instead, I ordered another Scotch, neat, water on the side, and listened to him. Which is how I ended up in Djibouti, standing by a busy road, wondering how he could be dead.
The Somali hailed a cab and held open the door. I suppose I could’ve declined, but I needed to know what happened to Melbourne. I got in. He joined me and told the driver, “Hotel Kempinski.”
The Hotel Kempinski hovered like a mirage above the ocean. Built at the tip of the peninsula that was the city of Djibouti, it invited comparisons to minor British palaces.
Despite the hour—past two in the morning—it was lit up as if heads of state with large entourages were about to arrive. The taxi stopped near an entrance. The Somali got out. I scrambled after him. He pointed to the cab driver.
Of course. I had to pay.
Sensing my inclination to marvel at the columns, chandeliers, and gilded reception desks inside, he grabbed my arm firmly and pulled me along. About a mile later, he pushed me through a double door into what looked like a somber gathering.
Some twenty or so attendees—mostly men—stood around. Africans, Arabs, and some from farther afield. The sideboard held plenty of alcohol. But for the missing coffin, it could’ve been a wake.
The swoosh of the door stopped the hum of conversations. The gathering focused on me, didn’t see anything exciting, and went back to talking. The stocky Somali let go of me. I stood by myself for a long moment until a Black woman came toward me. She had dark eyes and dark hair in a medium length cut that looked scruffy enough to have been expensive. Her beige suit was expertly tailored. Under the jacket she wore a taupe blouse with a yellow silk scarf, quite the splash of color in an otherwise drab room.
“Did you know Melbourne well?” she said, eyebrows raised. Her American drawl was unmistakable.
“As well as anyone, I suppose.” I looked around. “And you are?”
“A friend of Melbourne’s?”
“We’re all friends of Melbourne.”
“What happened to him? He phoned me two days ago, just before I left London. He sounded fine.”
“Oh, it was rather sudden. Car accident.”
“This morning…” She checked her watch. “…uh, yesterday, around ten.”
“And all of you knew him?” I said.
The woman nodded. “Some better than others.” A smile played around the corners of her mouth.
“Where’s his body?”
“In the morgue. The funeral is scheduled for eleven today.”
“That’s fast. Wasn’t there an investigation?”
“Of what? A car hit him. The driver got away. Nobody saw anything. In this climate it’s best to get a body into the ground fast.”
A hit-and-run? No investigation? That all seemed a bit hurried. But it was hot. I suppose the morgue couldn’t hold on to bodies forever.
“You’re a long way from home. What was your connection to Melbourne?” I said.
“I had a professional interest in his doings.”
“Not quite. But you are. Both trader and investor. Word is you backed his scheme.”
“Not really. I had some spare pounds and thought I’d play along. It was really his show.”
She raised her eyebrows, indicating she knew more than she was letting on.
“Did anyone inform his family?” I said.
“Did he have any? I found no next-of-kin information among his possessions.”
“So you knew him well enough to have access to his things?”
The smile returned but she didn’t take the bait. Instead, she said, “Will you come to the funeral?”
“Yes, of course. Where will it be?”
“At the European Cemetery.”
I thanked her and stepped to the credenza. They had my favorite Scotch.
A tall Somali joined me. I nodded and added a splash of water.
“You are Melbourne’s friend from London?” he said. He sounded more Oxford than Mogadishu.
I turned and looked him over. Dark eyes, oval face sporting a smile, close-cropped hair, no beard. His suit was even finer than the woman’s. Steel gray with a hint of a pinstripe, made of the thinnest wool, perfect for this climate. Under the jacket, a blindingly white shirt. No tie.
“I am,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Dawal. When did you arrive?”
“In the afternoon.”
“How are you liking Djibouti?”
“It’s fine so far. How did you know Melbourne?” I said.
“I represent certain interests. Melbourne had dealings with us.”
“What kind of interests?”
“The maritime kind.”
“Oh. Shipping and such?” I said.
His smile dimmed by a couple of watts. “Tangentially, yes. Didn’t Melbourne tell you about us?”
“Uh, no. Should he have?”
“Yes, since you backed him. He owes us a fair amount of money.”
“And who is ‘us’ again?”
The smile returned. “Certain Somali interests.”
I took a sip of my drink and pretended to savor the whisky while sorting out the new information. Somalia hadn’t been a country for almost twenty years. After Siad Barré was ousted, the country devolved into a patchwork of competing authorities based on clan allegiances. Puntland and Somaliland had split off completely. What Somali interests could there be?
“Tell me more about those Somali interests,” I said.
Dawal cocked his head. “You aren’t working for the British government?”
The cat was out of the bag. What had Melbourne gotten himself into?
“I can assure you I’m not. I’m a trader. Like Melbourne.”
Dawal nodded. “I represent a number of Somali entrepreneurs.”
“Of the maritime kind?”
“Yes.” He smiled benevolently.
“The kind of maritime entrepreneurs the rest of the world calls pirates?”
“A very unfortunate term. They call themselves the Somali Coast Guard.”
“That may have been accurate when they chased Chinese fishing trawlers from their waters, but holding cargo vessels hostage for ransom changed the nature of the activity, didn’t it?”
His smile widened. “That’s what Melbourne said as well. He proposed an alternate means of generating profits, involving something called the Baltic Dry Index.”
The pleasant buzz of my drink vanished.
As Dawal told it, Melbourne had proposed a deal identical to what he’d promised me. Piracy had driven up shipping costs. The Baltic Dry Index was climbing. He took my money to bet against that, hoping piracy would vanish and prices would come down. A risky bet, yes, but plenty of warships had come to stop piracy in the Gulf of Aden, so it wasn’t crazy risky.
Apparently, he’d taken the pirates’ money as well, promising them riches if they stopped attacking the shipping routes. That was crazy risky.
“You were his partner, no?” Dawal said.
“Not as such. We worked together on occasion, but we were never partners.”
“But you gave him his capital.”
“I did not. I invested a modest sum and wanted to see how he was doing. I’m in the same position as you. He took my money, and now he’s dead.”
The smile never left his face. Either he had a perennially sunny disposition, or was a tough negotiator. “Then we have a mutual interest in finding out where the money is now.”
The Somali who’d brought me to the Kempinski appeared by his side.
“Please accept our hospitality at the Sheraton Hotel,” Dawal said. “We’ve taken the liberty of moving your things already. This is Siyaad. He’ll accompany you.”
The Sheraton was much nicer than my previous accommodation. I slept reasonably well, despite the fact that my relocation had been involuntary and Siyaad was sitting outside my door. At nine o’clock, there was a loud knock. I got up, put on the hotel robe, and checked. Siyaad smiled and said I had thirty minutes to get ready. Since I didn’t travel with funeral clothing, a shower and a fresh shirt had to do.
I grabbed a coffee and a croissant from the breakfast buffet before Siyaad hustled me out of the hotel and into a waiting car. The driver peeled out and quickly merged onto the Boulevard du Général de Gaulle.
The New European Cemetery was initially created for the Foreign Legion, later it served Allied forces as a final resting place during World War II. Now ordinary Europeans were interred there.
The driver drove past a chapel and stopped a hundred yards further near a freshly dug hole. The crowd from the wake milled about, waiting.
Off to the side stood a trio that included Janice Franklin, who wore another fetching outfit. The same couldn’t be said for the two men. The sandy-haired fellow had MI-6 written all over him. The other man with the pencil mustache was probably a French spook.
She walked over to me. “I see you’ve made some local friends. That went fast for someone claiming he didn’t know what Melbourne was up to. “
“They reached out. I couldn’t really decline.”
She raised her eyebrows again. “And yet you insist you didn’t know what Melbourne was up to?”
“He had a plan, but I didn’t know about these local connections.”
“Are you CIA? Your companions sure look like spooks.”
“Treasury Department, FinCEN.”
“Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Looks like you’re in trouble. Tell me what you and Melbourne were up to and I can get you out of here.”
“I would, believe me, but I don’t know what he had going.”
“When did you last speak with Melbourne?”
“I haven’t seen Melbourne in weeks. He phoned me two days ago, said he’d meet me at the hotel last night.”
“And he didn’t show.”
“No, instead Siyaad brought me to the Kempinski. Why is everyone after Melbourne?”
“He showed up, made a lot of waves, and plenty of enemies.”
“Who are his enemies?” I said.
Her head motioned to the attendees. “All of them.”
“I thought they were his friends.”
Franklin smiled again. “I’m afraid you’re it.”
“Why all this enmity?” I said. “He’s too small a fish to roil this much ocean.”
“Stop pretending,” she said. “A lot of people want their money back. They think you know where it is.”
“What? That’s preposterous.”
My protestations barely covered the panic that was pushing my pulse up.
Fortunately, a grizzled European wearing priestly garb emerged from the chapel. Two African altar boys accompanied him, one carrying a cross, the other energetically swinging an ornate censer. Behind them, four men carried a plain coffin. They approached the grave, stopped, and placed the coffin on planks lying across the hole.
The prayer was offered in Latin. A few attendees bowed their heads; most stared off into the distance. After the rites, there was mumbling among the crowd. The four men lowered the casket into the hole and shoveled dirt on top. A loud squeak made me turn. A fifth man was pushing a wheelbarrow sloshing with concrete. He dumped it on top of the dirt.
“That’s to stop grave robbers,” Franklin said into my ear.
“What’s there to rob? He didn’t bring the family silver.”
“It’s what they do here.”
I thought about that. The concrete signaled finality. Too neat an end.
“Who’s paying for all this?” I said.
Franklin seemed surprised. “Aren’t you? I mean, you were his friend.”
“I arrived less than twenty-four hours ago. How could I have organized a funeral in that time?”
She shrugged and handed me her card. “In case you want to come clean.”
The priest, having completed his duties, repaired to the chapel. The altar boys followed him, the cross now resting on the shoulder of one and the censer dangling from the hand of the other, the incense all burned up.
I needed information, so I left Franklin and followed the priest into the chapel. The boys had deposited their paraphernalia and were about to leave. I nodded to them and gave each five hundred Francs. Their eyes lit up, and they dashed outside.
The priest watched them leave and said, “That wasn’t necessary. They already got paid.”
“It’s a custom where I come from,” I said. “And they were glad.”
“Are you Mr. Melbourne’s friend from London?”
“I am. I only just arrived and can barely make sense of it all. Who paid for the funeral? Any of the people outside?”
He shook his head. “It was an anonymous donation. I suspect none of the folks outside would spend a penny on Melbourne.” He gave me a curious look. “All this must’ve been a shock for you. Take a stroll along Siesta beach. The fresh air will do you good.”
Back at the Sheraton, I picked up a tourist map and told Siyaad I wanted to go for a walk. He got off his chair.
“How about I go alone,” I said. “I promise I won’t skip town.”
He nodded, but followed me anyway. I headed past the French Consulate toward Siesta beach. Siyaad kept a respectful distance.
I didn’t believe for a moment that the priest’s suggestion came from his pastoral concerns for my wellbeing. Someone had asked him to point me toward this beach. But who? Everyone I’d met so far was after Melbourne. The pirates and the spooks were on the same side, albeit for different reasons.
The sky was overcast and the salty breeze from the ocean was pleasant. The beach seemed forlorn. Maybe it was off-season. A few kids in the water, a handful of folks strolling along the promenade, and three men sitting on benches, reading newspapers.
The anonymous donation for the funeral occupied my mind. Who was the unknown benefactor? Although Melbourne had spent some time in Djibouti, it didn’t seem long enough to forge that kind of a friendship.
I reached the second man hidden behind a newspaper. Instead of French headlines, I saw the International Herald Tribune. The headlines were a day old. As I continued, I heard a whisper.
“Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur.”
Not sure I had heard right, I stopped.
“Keep moving and lose the tail.”
The man got up, folding the paper. I only saw his back. A rotund guy, brown slacks, beige shirt, and a straw hat. Not anyone I knew. He crossed the Route De La Siesta and disappeared into an alley. I continued along the beach while checking my tourist map.
Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur turned out to be a Catholic cathedral only a few blocks away. I strolled along the promenade a while longer. The next alley looked like a good escape and I made a dash for it.
A walled-in courtyard with an open gate looked promising but it had no other exit. I followed a narrow path outside one of the walls and turned left at a T-junction a hundred yards on. The path split into a warren of lanes full of small houses and shacks. An open garage offered a decent hiding place. I squeezed past the pickup inside and crouched by the front bumper.
Moments later, I heard steps and hard breathing. The steps slowed, the breathing didn’t. I counted on Siyaad not searching here. Any reasonable European would’ve continued on to the Boulevard de la République to disappear in the traffic. That’s where Siyaad headed.
I squeezed back outside, backtracked to the promenade, and hurried north to the cathedral.
Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur was a boxy cathedral with a short transept and an ornate semi-circular entrance at the nave end. I entered through a side door. The interior was dark and cool. The altar stood at the center of the transept, rows of pews occupied the nave. Three carved confessionals sat along one side, a string of votive candle stands glowed along the other.
A smattering of faithful knelt in the pews. None of them looked like the portly man with the newspaper. I walked past the confessionals toward the far exit. At the last one, I heard another whisper, telling me to confess my sins.
I knelt on the priedieu and stared through the wooden grate. Even though the lighting was dim, I could make out the person sitting inside.
It was Melbourne.
“Hullo, old chum,” he said. “It’s good to see you. Sorry for all the trouble.”
“What the hell, Melbourne?” I said, louder than warranted. “Is that your idea of a joke? You tell me to come. You don’t show. Next thing I’m at your funeral?”
“Keep it down, please. I’m really sorry, but things were getting out of hand. The Somalis want their money back, and the spooks think I’m in league with the pirates. I had to disappear.”
“Good god, Melbourne. Have you any sense at all?”
He said nothing.
“Where is my money?”
“Safe and sound. I’ll pay you back with profits.”
“And the Somalis’ money?”
“What about the Baltic Dry Index?”
“You were right, I would’ve lost my shirt on the forward freight trades.”
“But you took the Somali’s money anyway?”
“Hey, they had stolen it first. Besides, I got them to stop hijacking more ships. The spooks should be grateful rather than hounding me.”
“And the warships in the gulf had nothing to do with that? Give me a break.”
“That’s neither here nor there. I need your help to get out of Djibouti posthaste.”
“You need help? What about me? Everybody here thinks I’m in on your scam. The Somalis have me under house arrest.”
“Their alliance is as creaky as an old chair. If you pay off Dawar, he’ll let you go.”
“With what? Remember, you took my money too.”
“Let me make some arrangements. Where are the pirates holding you?”
“Go there and wait for my call.”
Dawal was waiting for me at the Sheraton. He wasn’t smiling.
“Don’t fuck with me. I know you were in on Melbourne’s scam. Until we get our money back, you’ll stay here. No more strolls along the beach.”
“Let’s get one thing straight. I wasn’t in on anything Melbourne did. He owes me money too. I want to help, but confining me to this room will make that difficult. How much of a down payment would you require to let me go? I might be able to free up a not insubstantial sum.”
“I can’t be bribed,” he said, but the hint of a smile on his face belied the fervor of his words.
“Who’s talking about a bribe? It’s a down payment. An expression of goodwill on my part in exchange for being able to go and find out where the rest of the money is.”
The smile grew wider.
“I suppose two hundred thousand dollars could assuage my doubts. Mind you, he owes the consortium around a million, so it is indeed only a down payment.”
I returned the smile. “Of course. I’m committed to recovering all of the funds Melbourne took. Give me a day or two, and everything should be squared away.”
The smile on Dawar’s face faded a little. As he left the room, he turned and said, “Siyaad will remain here. If you need to leave, he will accompany you. No more escapes.”
I nodded and locked the door. Over the room phone, I ordered lunch and a beer. Since it was on Dawar’s tab, I went for a full meal. Who knew when I would eat again?
The dessert was half gone when the phone rang. It was Melbourne.
“How did it go with Dawar?” he said.
“He is amenable to a down payment of five hundred thousand.”
“What? The guy is nuts. That’s half of what I took from them.”
“Well, in light of the circumstances walking away with half might be your best option. By the way, that half also includes my investment.”
“If I’m only getting half, so should you. Shared pain.”
“You forget that you didn’t put up any money to start with. So whatever you clear is pure profit. But more importantly, how are you getting the funds to me?”
“Easy, it’s in bearer bonds, stashed in a secure location.”
“And how will I get it?”
“I’ll messenger you the key. We’ll leave town first thing tomorrow.”
An hour later, I heard the expected knock. I opened the door. A young Arab carrying a helmet and a messenger bag stood there, an envelope in his hands. Siyaad regarded him with suspicion. I accepted the delivery and closed the door.
The envelope contained two keys and a piece of paper with an address. I checked the address on my map. A place on an unfashionable side street of Avenue Cheik Houmet. After stuffing some clean clothes into my briefcase, I left the room. Siyaad raised his eyebrows.
“A small errand,” I said. “No need to come along.”
He followed me anyway. I climbed into the first taxi downstairs, and Siyaad scrambled in after me.
The address was an old hotel, three stories, the windows fronted by rusty balconies connected by fire stairs, a dim reception area with a threadbare rug, a sleepy concierge, and a single elevator next to the staircase. I ignored the elevator and took the stairs, two steps at a time. Siyaad hustled after me. On the third floor, I found the proper door, unlocked it, slipped inside and locked Siyaad out.
“Sorry,” I said.” This is private business. I won’t be long.”
It was a sparse room. The search took only a moment. A wall safe was hidden inside the closet. I inserted the other key, unlocked the safe door, and found bearer bonds amounting to five hundred thousand dollars.
Once securely hidden between the underwear in my briefcase, I turned on the radio, opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside. It creaked precariously, but the descent to the street was quick. The security gate at the bottom could only be opened from the inside, which suited me just fine. I ran to the main street and hailed a cab.
An hour later, I rested comfortably in an equally forgettable hotel near the airport. My first call was to the airline to confirm my return flight to London. My second one was to alert Janice Franklin that Melbourne was not dead and would be at the airport the next morning at ten.
I got to the airport early and checked in for the flight to Istanbul with connection to London. Once through passport control, I was safe. I settled in the bar. It was a little early for a Scotch, neat, water on the side, but I needed to take the edge off. It had been a busy twenty-four hours. A rotund man wearing brown slacks, a beige shirt and a straw hat sat at a corner table.
I walked over.
“Do you really think a few towels wrapped around your midriff will fool anyone?” I said.
“It worked so far. Did Dawal give you any trouble?”
“Nah. You were right. He was eager to get his hands on the money.”
I checked my watch. Almost ten. Dawal and his men wouldn’t make it through passport control, but Agent Franklin would.
“Can’t wait to get out of here,” he said. “Some day we’ll look back at this and laugh.”
“I doubt that very much.”
A quartet of gendarmes had entered the departure hall, followed by Janice Franklin. They crowded around us. The sergeant told Melbourne that he was under arrest for financial crimes. His colleagues pulled him up and took off his sunglasses.
“Did you tip them off?” Melbourne said.
“They would’ve found out anyway. Be nice to Agent Franklin and maybe she’ll cut you a deal.”
I reached for his bag. Franklin had the same idea. We both got a hold of the handle.
She gave me a cold look. “Don’t mess with a treasury agent.”
Mindful of the police watching, I let go.
Franklin took Melbourne’s bag and opened it. The contents looked just like the papers in Melbourne’s hotel safe.
Melbourne smiled sadly. “I’d have been better off trusting Dawal.”
The gendarmes took him away, but Franklin stayed.
“I’ll spare you the cavity search,” she said. “But I’m going to confiscate your bag too. It contains material evidence.”
“On the basis of what? I have nothing of value in there.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“How about you show me an ID and a warrant?”
“You should be glad they didn’t arrest you too.” She held her phone in her hand. “I can easily change that. The prisons here aren’t a lot of fun.”
She took the bag and left.
I boarded and ended up sitting next to the British spook I’d seen at the funeral.
“I could’ve used your help,” I said. “Since when do you let American agents run roughshod over British subjects?”
“What American agents?”
“Janice Franklin. She confiscated my briefcase just now.”
“Is that what she was doing?” He laughed. “Crazy woman. When she first showed up here a couple of months ago, she was going on and on, Federal Agent this and Treasury that. Very convincing. But I checked with London. She isn’t any kind of agent.”
“She isn’t? What the hell? I liked that briefcase.”
I went to the restroom. Behind the locked door, I pulled up my shirt. The bearer bonds were sticking to my damp skin, and I couldn’t afford to have them disintegrate. I folded them carefully and stuck them in my jacket pocket.
Who’d ever heard of a treasury agent in the field wearing a taupe blouse with a yellow silk scarf?
writes crime fiction. His Valentin Vermeulen Thrillers are published by Coffeetown Press. The third in the series, Illegal Holdings, won the Silver Falchion for best thriller at Killer Nashville 2019. His stories have appeared in the MWA Anthology Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, in MystericalE, and as Kindle Singles. He lives in Southern Oregon.