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The RussianThe Russian Trilogy
By Noel Hynd
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Noel Hynd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe late-evening cognac and cigar were indulgences that Daniel had come to enjoy. So each evening at ten, on fiendishly cold nights like this one, he would set out on foot to the lively restaurant at the corner. It was Friday, January 2, two days into the New Year. He wouldn't be in Paris for much longer, so he might as well enjoy each evening. Even he didn't know which evening would be his last.
His small apartment was on the rue du Bourg Tibourg in the Marais district, not far from the Hôtel de Ville, which was no hotel, but Paris's majestic city hall. The neighborhood, which stretched across the third and fourth arrondissements on Paris's Right Bank, had been the city's most exclusive neighborhood in the seventeenth century. It had deteriorated into a sordid slum two generations ago, one of the tougher sections of the city for the Parisian police when they bothered to go into it.
Now all that had again changed. The Marais had been gentrified and rebuilt during the reign of President Francois Mitterrand — a regal Socialist, said by critics to be "the last French king" — in the 1970s. It was now a lively place in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a favorite of tourists, busy during the day with art galleries, museums, quirky shops, and restaurants. And it still had its distinctive flavor; several small shops and stores that catered to the older Jewish residents of the area, Holocaust survivors, and their descendants.
His favorite cafe, L'étincelle — "the spark" in French — anchored the square that connected the rue du Bourg Tibourg with the rue de Rivoli. This was not the tourist rue de Rivoli with the arcades that ran on one side of the Tuileries and along the Louvre, but its extension that ultimately turned into the rue Saint-Antoine and wound up in the place de la Bastille. There were few tourists here.
Daniel trudged past the South American café on the near corner, affecting the awkward hesitant gait of an old man. The night was frigid, unusual even for Paris in January. He pulled his overcoat tight. He stepped past some remaining patches of ice. His breath was a small cloud in front of him. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit. It felt colder.
His gray whiskers, a two-week growth of beard, shielded his face. He looked like an old rabbi, which was ironic, but not exactly an accident. Below the beard, he wore the white clerical collar of a priest. Under the bulky coat rested a silver cross with the body of Christ, the unmistakable sign of a Roman Catholic.
Just a few more steps and Daniel was in the restaurant.
The Spark was appropriately named. It was a bright place with a pleasant staff. One of the waitresses spotted him as he entered. Irene. She was a trim girl in her early twenties, articulate, pretty, and friendly. Like the rest of the staff she zipped around in a brown T-shirt bearing the restaurant's logo and a snug pair of jeans.
Why, if he were a younger man, he mused, watching her ... and if he weren't a priest ...
Not a priest. The thought amused him.
She had an interesting exotic face. Daniel was a student of faces. He pegged her as half French, half Algerian. Irene reminded him of this French-Algerian singer he liked named Nadiya or the American singer Norah Jones.
"Bon soir, mon Père," she said. "Hello, Father."
"Bon soir, Irène," he answered.
He had been here often enough to know the staff and their names. He pulled off his wool coat, gloves, and scarf. The restaurant smelled good. It was a good life he was living these weeks in Paris. He liked this part of the day where he could sit in a bustling place, pick up on the energy of the young people around him, and be alone with his thoughts.
"Sit anywhere you like," she said.
He nodded. He scanned. He spotted the American woman at a table by herself. Well, fortune was smiling on him. He would not be alone this evening. Rosa, as she had introduced herself on a prior evening. She was a professor of some sort, or so she said. Single, she had said, and appreciative of some unthreatening companionship as the day ended. She had never given her last name and he had never asked it.
She had held him in conversations about philosophy and theology for the last two evenings and didn't seem to have any ulterior motives, something against which Daniel was always watchful. Surely she wouldn't mind having company again. He knew he wouldn't. It was tough these days to even find a woman who could tolerate a cigar, much less a cigar smoked by a priest.
She was seated near the door. She smiled when she saw him.
He approached her table. "Mind if I join you?" he asked.
They spoke English, his with a trace of an accent that suggested eastern or south central Europe. Hers was American, flat as corn country. When she had asked about his accent, he had explained that his roots were in Hungary.
"I was a boy in Budapest," he had recounted. "That's where my parents had lived until 1956. When the Russian tanks rolled in, they fled to England and then Canada."
"Where did you go to seminary?" she had asked.
"Montréal. That's how I speak French."
She, in turn, explained that she had grown up in Kansas but now lived in New York City. He knew all about New York, it turned out. He entertained her with stories. She did likewise.
This evening, as always, Daniel folded his overcoat and placed it neatly on an extra chair at their table. He sat down. Irene brought him a cognac, gave him a cute smile, and quickly left to attend other tables.
"You're sure my cigar doesn't bother you?" Daniel asked his table companion.
"Not at all."
They fell into a conversation easily. He noticed that she was watching his hands.
She was drinking a Coca-Cola with a twist of lemon. There was music playing again tonight, so loud that one had to raise one's voice just to be heard. A friendly din. Lots of conversation in several languages, lots of glasses clinking and plates clattering. L'étincelle was a cheerful upbeat joint.
A few minutes into their conversation, she raised a hand and waved to a man who came in the door and surveyed the place.
"Oh! There's a friend of mine!" she said. "He's going to join us."
Daniel didn't like that. For no reason, or for every reason, he didn't like it at all. He had an acute antenna, and he sensed something was wrong. He looked at the stranger with a stare that could bore a hole in a cinderblock wall.
But before Daniel could object, the newcomer slid into the extra chair, the one closest to the door. Daniel took him to be American before he even opened his mouth. He looked like a businessman of some sort. Another sign of trouble.
There was an awkward moment. The man looked at Daniel with intent dark eyes. Rosa offered no introduction. That in and of itself was enough of a further clue.
Three strikes and —
"What?" Daniel asked, looking back and forth, hoping he might be wrong.
"You're not an old man, Father Daniel," she said.
"You're not my friends," he answered.
"And you're not a priest," the man said. "You're not even Catholic."
Daniel moved his hand quickly under his jacket, reaching for the gun that he carried for just such moments. But Rosa thrust her hand roughly after his, momentarily deflecting his grasp and minimizing any possibility that he might defend himself.
At the same time, the newcomer, quickly and professionally, reached across the table with a small snub-nosed handgun. He pressed it right to Daniel's chest and he pulled the trigger.
The gun erupted with an ear-splitting bang. It was barely audible above the noise of the restaurant, though diners at some tables started to look around.
Daniel's face showed shock, then outrage. Then all that dissolved with accelerating pain. The bullet had smashed the sternum at the midpoint of his chest. The gunman followed his advantage with a second shot. Another powerful bang. He squeezed that one off so quickly and accurately that it passed directly through Daniel's heart.
The woman braced his body and steadied it so that Daniel didn't tumble. Instead, with a helpful little push, Daniel slid forward, his body slumping onto the table as if he were drunk.
The gunman pocketed his weapon and rose to his feet. Rosa did the same. They used their hands to shield their faces and moved quickly to the door. Only as they were going through it did they start to hear a commotion behind them. Loud agitated conversation built into shouting.
Several seconds later young Irene came to the table to see what was wrong.
She saw the shattered brandy glass under Daniel's lifeless head. She saw his unfocused eyes and his blood mixing with the cognac on the table.
Her hands flew to her face and she started to scream. The evening manager, a fit young man named Gerard, rushed over. But by this time, Daniel's two acquaintances had disappeared into the dark side streets and alleys.
They were gone into the icy night, leaving their victim behind.
Chapter TwoAs the same cold midwinter gripped the eastern United States, Alexandra LaDuca sat at her desk in Washington DC, at a few minutes past nine in the morning. Her desk, and her job, was at the main building of the United States Department of the Treasury on Pennsylvania Avenue and Fifteenth Street.
She pondered the fraudulent document before her, received via the US mail by a citizen who had brought a complaint to the Treasury Department. It was not that Alex hadn't seen thousands of similar pitches, and it was not that she hadn't heard sob stories from people who had been similarly swindled. And it wasn't that such chicanery so violated her sense of decency and fair play.
No, what bothered her most was that anyone would be so venal as to make a living through such outright crookery ... and that any victim would be gullible enough to fall for it. The correspondence was on a fancy letterhead:
Foreign Remittance Department Central Credit Bank of Nigeria Tinubu Square, Victoria Island Lagos, Nigeria
There was the first duet of lies. There existed nowhere on the planet, Alex knew, any such department or any such bank. She sometimes wondered if Lagos existed, other than in her own bad dreams. But she knew Lagos did exist because she had spent a couple of weeks there a year earlier investigating a similar fraud. The only success of the previous trip had been in what hadn't happened. She had successfully avoided getting killed.
The scam continued:
Immediate Contract Payment Contract #: Mav/Nnpc/Fgn/ Min/009 / Next of Kin Fund/ US$16.3m
From the records of outstanding Next of Kin Fund due for payment with the Federal Government of Nigeria, your name was discovered on the list of the outstanding payments who have not yet received their funds.
We wish to inform you that your payment is being processed. We will release said funds to you immediately as soon as you respond to this letter. Also note that from records in my file your outstanding payment is US$16,300,000. Kindly reconfirm to me the followings:
Your full name.
Phone, fax and mobile number ...
Yeah, sure. Sixteen million bucks in an offer as phony as a unicorn with a three dollar bill on its nose. She simmered. She had seen enough of these to last a lifetime.
Alex LaDuca, at age twenty-nine, worked as a senior investigator with a little-publicized agency of the US Treasury: the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen. The agency enforced laws against domestic and international financial crimes that targeted US citizens and corporations. She was actually a special agent of the FBI but on loan to FinCen to combat international financial fraud.
Her boss was a stocky little man named Mike Gamburian from Boston. His office featured a mural of a triumphant Fenway Park in October of 2004, a moment when the Red Sox finally won something. The New York employees who worked for him, in grudging good humor, claimed the mural created "a hostile work environment." Aside from that, Gamburian was a genial fellow and not unpleasant to work for.
Alex was one of FinCen's shrewdest investigators, as well as one of the toughest. She was also the youngest to have "senior" status. And she didn't lack for assignments. With the proliferation of the Internet, fraud had gone global and high tech. Financial fraud was a growth industry.
The shameless scam continued ...
As soon as this information is received, your payment will be made to you in A Certified Bank Draft or wired to your nominated bank account directly from Central Bank of Nigeria.
You can mail me on my direct email address ...
Yeah, Alex thought, shaking her head. Don't even try to phone because a phone call can be traced. She skipped ahead. It was signed,
Regards, Dr. Samuel Ifraim Executive Governor, Central Credit Bank of Nigeria (CCBN)
Right. Sure. A fake name with a fake doctorate. And the "CC" in the CCBN might just as easily stand for Crooks and Criminals.
The scam was known at FinCen as a 419, named after a widely unenforced section of the Nigerian criminal code. Millions of these stinky little con jobs circulated across the globe each year, most emanating from West Africa.
They were all the same. They claimed that due to certain circumstances — disbursement of will proceeds, sale of a business, sale of cheap crude oil, a winning email address in an Internet lottery, or something similarly unlikely — a bank needed help to transfer this money to the lucky recipient's account in the United States. If the recipient assisted them he or she would be entitled to a percentage of the funds.
If contacted, the scam artists would request thousands of dollars for various costs that were required before the lucky winner got the share of the funds. Of course, the victim's payment went through but — surprise — the transfer of riches never happened.
The scam was as widespread as it was shameless. In 2002 the US Department of Justice had gained a court order to open all mail from Nigeria passing through JFK airport in New York. Around seventy-five percent had involved scam offers. Much of it even bore counterfeit postage.
And then there had been her nightmarish trip to Lagos the previous year. A mission from the United States Treasury had sought to present evidence that much of the swindling was being done with the apparent complicity of the Nigerian government.
The hosts in Lagos didn't take well to that theory. While the Americans were meeting with representatives of the government, their hotel rooms were sacked and trashed. Their clothes were taken, their suitcases slashed, and death threats scrawled on the walls. Of five staff cars used by Treasury representatives and belonging to the US Embassy, three were stolen and one was chopped apart with a chain saw while their meeting was in progress. A fifth blew up, killing their Nigerian chauffeur.
So much for a little international fieldwork. Most members of the delegation felt lucky to touch down again physically unharmed on American soil.
Alex filed the paperwork before her. The 419s would be around for as long as people would fall for them. The fight against them would continue. But in the absence of follow-up at the source — when a foreign government might be aiding the perpetrators — they could only be contained, not defeated. Not that she was going to ignore them. She wasn't above a personal vendetta or two for criminals who deserved to be put out of business. She had a long memory for such things and could be stubborn as a bulldog once she got her teeth into a case.
But she had more immediate dragons to slay. There was a messy business involving untaxed wine imports from France. There was a perplexing matter about some art stolen by the Nazis from a wealthy Jewish collector who had died in the Holocaust; a Swiss bank denied culpability despite the fact that a looted Pissarro had been hanging in the New York office of the bank president for the last thirty years. And then there was a whole sheaf of various non-419 Internet frauds that seemed to be associated with an online casino operation in Costa Rica.
If human beings invested the same ingenuity in eradicating disease and hunger that they did in swindling each other, the world might be a better place ... and she might happily be in another line of work, one that would have put her on the front lines in the fight against worldwide oppression, ignorance, disease, hunger, and poverty, causes she felt were compatible with her guiding principles. Sometimes she thought she should have become a doctor. She would have been an excellent one and could easily have become one.
But human beings didn't manifest such ingenuity and Alex hadn't become a doctor. So she did what she could. She enjoyed sticking up for victims. Out in the field, she had several teams of investigators who worked for her. The day was young. It was time to see what cases were shaping up for arrests or prosecution. She dug in for a day of combat, matching wits with various crooks across the world and on the Internet.
Excerpted from The Russian by Noel Hynd Copyright © 2011 by Noel Hynd . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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