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Two poor Kenyan men visiting the U.S. are found dead, one in jail, one on the street. Both used forged UN documents to enter the country. Valentin Vermeulen's superiors have no interest in the plight of undocumented immigrants, but they want him to stop the fraud. The clues take Vermeulen from New York City to Newark, where he riles a woman known as "The Broker," then to Vienna.
Earle Jackson, a small-time hustler and the last person to speak with one of the dead Kenyans, has taken the man's passport and money. He also finds a note listing an address in Newark, where his efforts to cash in on the situation go awry. Fleeing for his life, Jackson flies to Nairobi using the dead man's passport.
Book 2 in the Valentin Vermeulen Thriller series.
About the Author
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. For more information, go to: www.michael-niemann.com.
Read an Excerpt
A Valentin Vermeulen Thriller
By Michael Niemann
Coffeetown PressCopyright © 2017 Michael Niemann
All rights reserved.
He shouldn't have come. His gut had known all along. He'd thought it was just a case of nerves, pretty normal for someone who'd never been in an airplane before. But it had gotten worse, much worse. He bent forward to ease the pain.
"Citizens to the left, visitors to the right." The female officer in a blue uniform looked right through him. "Citizens to the left, visitors to the right."
Like most passengers, Joseph Odinga stepped to the right.
Maybe the pain was hunger. During the flights he'd only picked at his meals.
The line moved again. The passport officers at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City were taking their time. He stumbled forward, grateful for the tape that outlined the maze through which the visitors were herded. His passport and paperwork felt slippery in his hand. A kind flight attendant had helped him fill out the immigration forms. On his own, he'd have made a mess of it.
He reached the end of the line. Another officer — lighter skinned than the first — held up her hand. He stopped, wiped sweat from his forehead. The officer directed him to the eighth booth. There were three parties ahead of him.
His seat neighbors, a Kenyan woman and her son, spoke to the agent inside the booth. The woman put her right thumb, then the four fingers of her right hand, on a small green screen. She repeated the process with her left hand. The officer pointed a small round thing at her. If that was a camera, it was smaller than any Joseph had seen.
He could see the officer in the booth asking questions. The woman smiled, nodded, said something in return. She looked confident. They had the right papers. The officer in the booth smiled. He stamped her passport, snapped it shut, and handed it to her. They were in.
A white man stepped forward and handed his papers across the counter. The officer said something. The man answered. He didn't smile. Neither did the officer, who typed on a keyboard. There were more questions. Still no smiling. It looked like the kind of trouble that had caused the cramps in Joseph's stomach. A border agent, dodgy papers, and no place to hide.
The alien creature that had been settling inside his gut ever since he left Nairobi began to devour his innards. He wanted to lie down and curl up to ease the pain. But he couldn't do that. Don't attract attention — that's what the white man in Kibera had told him. Sweat ran down his face and stained the collar of his shirt. He shouldn't have come. His stomach's message was clear. He should have stayed home. He already missed the heat and smell of a quarter-million people crammed into five hundred acres of slum just south of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. He missed taking portraits and passport photos.
The man had made it through. He'd disappeared and been replaced by two African girls. Maybe they were exchange students, coming to the U.S. for a year. They were dressed in sharp clothes and bubbled with excitement. He knew they weren't from Kibera. They'd gone to a private high school. They looked like the daughters of government ministers.
The officer in the booth took a long time dealing with the students' paperwork. Was there so much to document just to come and study here? Joseph remembered his own visa application. Good thing somebody else had filled it in. It was too complicated.
The officer took his time.
The delay only gave the creature in Joseph's belly more time to burrow. Please, let it be over, he thought. I don't care anymore. Anything but standing here, being eaten by fear. He wanted to turn around, go back. What good could be found in a country that so frightened you before you even got inside?
The officer looked at him with a stare that went straight down to the creature eating his guts. His name tag read Menendez.
Joseph stood there.
His shirt clung to his skin like a cold rag.
"Good morning," Officer Menendez said.
"Speak up. I can't hear you."
Joseph remembered to hand the officer his passport and the other documents.
Officer Menendez took his passport and slid the page with his picture through a slot.
"Are you feeling okay, Mr. Odinga? You don't look so good."
"Yes, uh ... no, my stomach is not good."
"Probably that airline food."
Officer Menendez flipped through the paperwork.
"You are here to attend a UN hearing on urban development?" he said.
"Where do you work?"
"No, who is your employer?"
Joseph tried to remember what the white man had told him to say. UN hearing. Urban development. Slums. Yes, that was it.
"Slums," he said.
"Yeah, I understand that. What I want to know is who you work for."
Joseph saw the furrows forming on Officer Menendez's forehead. This wasn't going well. Who do I work for? The white man had told him. But he couldn't remember. Wait, there it was.
"Okay, what university?"
"University in Nairobi."
"Yes, what's its name?"
Joseph couldn't think. His mind was busy checking the progress of the animal in his gut. It didn't have time for questions.
"You don't speak much English, do you?" Menendez said.
"You say you are a professor at a university in Nairobi, but you only speak some English?" Joseph shook his head. "No, not professor. I work at Technical University in Nairobi."
"What are you doing at this UN hearing?" Menendez said.
"Slums," he said again.
It took all the energy he had left. The creature had eaten all his organs. There was a gaping hole where his stomach had been. He looked down, expecting to see blood pour to the floor. There were only gray tiles and a yellow line. The tiles blurred. The line turned into a snake. It smiled at him and said, "You should have stayed in Kibera."
The snake was right.
The white man had made it sound so easy. Go to the U.S. Make a lot of money. Pay for your mother's surgery and your little sister's school fees.
He looked up again. There were two more officers in blue uniforms. They carried guns in their holsters. They grabbed him by his arms and took him away. There wouldn't be any money. He'd let his family down.
He'd failed.CHAPTER 2
The waitress at the café on Second Avenue and 48th Street was kind of cute. Valentin Vermeulen watched as she wiped the crumbs off a neighboring table that had just been vacated. Her movements were unhurried and precise. When she raised her head to catch him staring, he looked away. Forty-five years old and checking out cute waitresses.
"That's quite the tie you're wearing," the waitress said.
"It is, isn't it?"
The tie's patterns rivaled the latest exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. It belied the plainness of the rest of his appearance, an off-the-rack dark woolen suit, a white shirt, and gray socks. Like millions of others who spent their days in offices.
"Did you get it in the city?" the waitress said.
"Er ... no." He was getting a little hot under the collar. "It's a gift from my daughter. She bought it in Düsseldorf, er, in Germany."
Vermeulen expected the look that said, you creep, you have a daughter old enough to give you fancy ties and you're checking out my ass, but it didn't come.
"Germany, huh? I figured it had to be from overseas. Never saw anything like it around here. And I see a lot of different outfits, with the United Nations so close by."
"You want some more coffee?"
He nodded. The waitress left. He breathed easier.
She came back with the coffee. "I bet you work at the United Nations," she said.
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, you have a daughter in Germany. You look European — I mean, your shoes are definitely European. And you were embarrassed when I caught you looking at me. Most Americans wouldn't be."
He had the rugged countenance of the Flemish farmers in his family tree, but he never thought of himself as looking European. She was right about the shoes. He was particular about his shoes. It was the one piece of advice from his father that he'd heeded.
"Well done," he said. "I work for the Office of Internal Oversight Services at the UN."
A new patron sat down at the vacant table and the waitress left to get a menu.
He'd been back in New York City for almost a year. After seven years in the wilderness, hopscotching from one faraway mission to another, he'd finally proven his loyalty to the satisfaction of his superiors at the OIOS. In the end, generating positive headlines for the UN carried enough weight to overcome the legacy of his original faux pas back in 2003. He'd made a terrible first impression by accusing the son of the then Secretary General of profiting from the Iraqi oil-for-food program.
During the first months back in New York City, he was simply content to be back. That blotted out any thoughts about the downsides. He'd moved back into his studio apartment on Gansevoort Street, only half a block away from the High Line. Its owners hadn't yet turned into real estate speculators and had allowed him to sublet it while he was out of the country. Just stretching out in his own bed was grand. Then there were the offerings of a world city: great food at reasonable prices — if you knew where to look; his favorite Belgian beer, De Koninck, available in a store just three blocks away; and a little shop that stocked his favorite cigarettes, Gitane Papier Maïs. It all added up to a blissful half-year.
During the next six months, the sheen wore off. The dress code was just one annoyance. The inane office dynamics and the dull work also weighed upon his spirits. A restlessness he recognized from his days at the Crown Prosecutor's office in Antwerp infiltrated his life. Back then, it was the impending divorce from his wife that made him tap his foot like a teenager. This time it was simple boredom. Back then, his solution was to leave Belgium for the job at the UN the moment his divorce was finalized. This time, he couldn't think of an alternative.
He missed sorting out clues, cornering crooks, and closing cases. Instead, he wrote reports about cases closed by someone else. Yes, there were the memories of seedy hotels, bad food at airports, rarely having time to catch your breath before jetting off to another assignment. He didn't want to go back to that. But the occasional assignment of a big fraud case, with assurances of a return to New York City ... that would be nice. He might even get his tan back.
His phone rang. He pushed an errant forelock of blond hair from his forehead. It was his boss, Suarez. Against his better judgment, he tapped the Answer button.
"Where are you?" Suarez said.
"Just finishing lunch."
"At the cafeteria downstairs?"
"No. A little bakery on Second, just a couple of blocks south of the UN Plaza."
"Food at the cafeteria not good enough for you?" Everybody knew that the food in the cafeteria was subpar. Suarez always sounded like he wanted to pick a fight. Vermeulen knew enough not to take the bait.
"I can be in your office in ten minutes," Vermeulen said.
"Don't bother. Get yourself to the ICE office at 29 Federal Plaza. Fred Sunderland, Special Agent in Charge, is waiting for you."
"The ICE office?"
"Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Apparently someone in the Nairobi office is using fake invitation letters for visas to the U.S."
Vermeulen sighed. That sounded like an errand, not the kind of assignment he'd been daydreaming about.
Fred Sunderland was a portly fellow who could've subbed for Santa Claus. All he needed was a red hat and a white beard. Except he wasn't the least bit jolly.
"Have a seat, Mister ..." he studied the card Vermeulen had given him, "Vermoolen."
Vermeulen didn't bother to correct him. There was no sound in the English language that would have approximated the pronunciation of his last name.
"You have a problem," Sunderland continued. "This fake letter from your Nairobi office was used to get someone a visa to the U.S."
Vermeulen noticed the use of the pronoun. As if he had personally smuggled an undocumented alien into the country. Sunderland passed a plastic sleeve containing the letter across the desk. It looked real enough. The letterhead was from the UN Human Settlements Program, UN-HABITAT, in Nairobi. It stated that Joseph Odinga had been invited to speak at a conference on slum rehabilitation in New York. The signature was difficult to make out; the printed name below presumably belonged to some program officer.
"How do you know it's fake?" Vermeulen said.
"The Customs and Border Protection officer, who checked his papers at JFK, noted Odinga's suspicious behavior. When questioned further, Mr. Odinga couldn't explain the circumstances of his visit. Doesn't sound like a conference speaker to me."
"That's all? An African man acts nervous at the passport counter and you lock him up? Why wouldn't he be nervous? It's not like international arrival at JFK is a pleasant experience. The conference organizers probably invited slum dwellers to get firsthand insights into the conditions of their existence. I bet it's the first time Mr. Odinga has ever traveled out of Kenya."
Sunderland's eyes turned into slits. He leaned forward. "Listen, Vermoolen. I don't need some flunky from the United Nations telling me how to protect our borders. That man won't be testifying at one of your gabfests. He didn't know why he was here. He's illegal."
"I assume he was confused. Probably doesn't speak English well. And he was scared."
"If I wanted someone to go to bat for Odinga, Vermoolen, I'd have called one of the immigration shysters. I asked the UN to send someone who'd find out who's issuing fake letters in Nairobi and stop it."
Vermeulen already disliked the man enough to challenge him. "I don't believe you've established that the letter was fake."
Sunderland snorted, opened a folder, and pulled out three more plastic sleeves containing letters. Each invited someone to a UN event. Two were issued by UN agencies with offices in Vienna. The third also came from UN-HABITAT in Nairobi.
"The first one showed up three months ago. We only caught those scam artists who didn't have the wherewithal to fake out the Customs and Border Protection officers. We're not sure how many slipped through. For all I know, there are tens or hundreds more who came in and promptly disappeared. You'd better put a stop to it."
"Or what? Spare me the bluster. I'm still not convinced that these are fake letters. Your fair city houses a world organization with many far-flung programs. Not everyone who's invited is a head of state."
"Did any of these conferences actually take place?"
Vermeulen didn't know the answer. As usual, Suarez hadn't told him anything before sending him on this errand.
Trying to suppress his impatience with the entire situation, he asked, "Can I speak to Mr. Odinga? Where is he? Where are the other three?"
"Odinga is probably in Elizabeth. Two of the others are somewhere in the system. The third waived his right to a hearing and was deported."
"Can I have copies of these letters? I'll have to ascertain their origin." Sunderland slipped him an envelope. "And I'd like to make an appointment to speak with Mr. Odinga."
"Does it look like I'm in charge of his calendar? You want to talk to him, you go across the Hudson and stand in line." Sunderland thrust his ruddy face forward so that Vermeulen could smell the onions on his breath. "Just so we understand each other, Vermoolen, until the United Nations cleans up this mess, the officers at JFK will give special attention to UN invitees. We may not be able to prevent the world's dictators from coming here and spewing their venom, but we sure as hell can keep their unwashed rabble out."
Vermeulen got up. At the door, he turned. "Good thing the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor. That way, the passengers arriving at JFK won't see its inscription. They might confuse this country with one that actually cares."CHAPTER 3
It took Vermeulen the entire afternoon and part of the next morning to locate Joseph Odinga. Nobody at Immigration and Customs Enforcement seemed to have any interest in making his job easier. Maybe Sunderland had told them to give him the runaround. At ten thirty, after umpteen transfers, a woman with a kind voice finally confirmed that Joseph Odinga was indeed being held at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility.
He rented a car and set out for the Lincoln Tunnel. The only part of New Jersey he'd ever seen was the Newark Airport and the stretch of the Jersey Turnpike the cab took to get him back to Manhattan. The route to the detention center was the same trip in reverse. After merging onto the eastern spur of the turnpike, he settled into the right lane, maintaining a comfortable distance from the eighteen-wheeler in front of him. There was no reason to hurry. The other drivers didn't feel the same way. Their incessant lane changing would have made a Buddhist monk antsy.
Excerpted from Illicit Trade by Michael Niemann. Copyright © 2017 Michael Niemann. Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Illicit Trade is even better than Michael Niemann's first Valentin Vermeulen International Thriller, Legitimate Business. With surprises popping up throughout the book, I was intrigued with each turn of the page.