Con man Max O’Brien gets pulled into a grisly conspiracy while investigating his lover’s murder.
Distraught by the murder of Tanzanian lawyer and ex-lover Valéria Michieka and her daughter Sophie, Max O’Brien travels to Tanzania to track down those responsible. What starts as a fight for justice quickly becomes entangled with the persecution of albinos in the East African state. Thought by some to have supernatural powers, many albinos find themselves targeted for their body parts, and Max has reason to think that Valéria and Sophie were killed because of her legal work defending albinos’ rights and safety.
Did the lawyers’ fight against this horrendous business upset the human traffickers? Max’s search for the truth about their deaths is filled with unknowns, each more impenetrable than the last.
About the authors
Screenwriter Mario Bolduc has written three novels featuring Max O’Brien, originally published in French. The Kashmir Trap starts the series and Tsiganes (The Roma Plot) won the 2008 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Book in French. Mario lives in Montreal.
Born, bred and raised in Montreal, Jacob Homel has translated or collaborated in the translation of a number of works, including Toqué: Creators of a Quebec Gastronomy, The Last Genêt and The Weariness of the Self. In 2012, he won the JI Segal Translation Prize for his translation of A Pinch of Time. He shares his time between Montreal and Asia.
Excerpt: The Tanzania Conspiracy: A Max O'Brien Mystery (by (author) Mario Bolduc; translated by Jacob Homel)
PART ONE: The Kandoya Method
On the small-screen television jammed beneath the instrument panel between a toolbox and a bottle of whisky, Barack Obama’s visit to Tanzania was being celebrated with the racket of marching bands and the usual overblown speeches. The flickering, ghosted, washed-out images spoke of a major historical event according to Rashid, the boat’s captain, who was manoeuvring his craft with one eye on TVZ and the other on the exit of the Malindi harbour in Zanzibar. It was early April 2009, and the new American president was coming in from Ghana, stopping over in Dar es Salaam, and then touching ground a few days later in Kenya, his father’s country. “Obama is Africa in the White House,” Rashid had declared as he’d greeted Max O’Brien on the dock a few minutes earlier, encouraging his passenger to participate in the celebrations.
But Max had other things on his mind. He hated improvisation but had to depend on Jayesh Srinivasan’s decisions. Jayesh had told Max more than once over the phone, “Rashid has received and understood my instructions and will obey you blindly.”
However, Jayesh hadn’t informed Max that this former fisherman who’d become a boat captain was a political junkie, and he had woven a web of talk around Max ever since the two met the evening before. In the smoky little café in Stone Town where they finalized the operation, Rashid prattled on and on about international politics and their consequences — dire, it went without saying — for the African continent.
Once they moved out of the harbour, Rashid pointed out a scruffy-looking dhow at anchor in the middle of the bay where more than a hundred refugees in rags were huddled. A makeshift tarp offered poor shelter from the sun and oppressive heat. Children crying. Babies bawling. Worse, the empty eyes of emaciated people, starving, fresh in from the belly of human misery.
“They escaped from Burgavo,” Rashid explained above the rattling of the engine.
Burgavo, in Somalia, near the border with Kenya.
They must have tried to land in Mombasa, farther south, but the authorities would have kept them out of the port, the result, most likely, of the tensions between Kenya and Somalia. They kept on going and entered Tanzanian waters, coming to a halt outside the port, praying for pity.
“They picked the wrong day,” Rashid remarked. “The Zanzibar port authority is closed on Saturdays. Sundays, too.”
The unfortunate travellers wouldn’t see the immigration agents until the offices opened on Monday. More than thirty-six hours of being baked alive in the port with no food and limited water. It was forty degrees Celsius, and the humidity stuck to the skin like a coating of filth.
A hundred metres from the dhow, a glittering floating monster, all whiteness on blue water: Jonathan Harris’s yacht, freshly minted at the German shipyards of Blohm &Voss. Heading for the Mediterranean where its home port was — Nice, to be exact — the Sunflower was coming from Cape Town and was expecting to stop at Mombasa and Suez after sailing past Djibouti. The Gulf of Aden was infested with pirates. Harris’s advisers had tried to dissuade the billionaire from attempting the passage, and even the captain, normally so obsequious, had added his voice to the chorus, but Harris wasn’t the type to be frightened off by “primitives with machetes,” as he called them. Having done good business in South Africa, he decided to purchase the services of a private militia armed to the teeth that would travel with the crew and passengers. The shock troops would board in Mombasa and remain on duty until Suez.
And with all the security, Harris still had no idea that the Mr. Robert Flanagan who’d offered him his expertise and would be joining him on the yacht today was actually Max O’Brien, a notorious con artist who had Interpol at his heels.
Usually, Max chose his victims carefully; he studied, scrutinized, and plotted. Each scam was carried out according to a modus operandi that was more or less identical. After a long period of observation, after setting out appetizing bait, his accomplices having warmed up the future victim, Max stepped in. The work sometimes took only a few days, or stretched out over several months. Each victim was unique, and adjustments were always necessary. Most of all, total control from beginning to end of the operation was essential.
But when it came to Harris, Max had to trust someone else’s plans and preparations, something he despised. Even if the other was Jayesh Srinivasan, his friend he’d worked with in India.
The great age of fraud was over for Max, and he’d sworn those days were past. When he returned from Europe after the business with the Roma, he slowly abandoned his activities and settled in the village of Shela, just outside Lamu, in northern Kenya.
Two weeks ago, Jayesh called Max from Mumbai. Pure gold, according to him. An easy mark, and he’d prepared the perfect trap for the billionaire Jonathan Harris. All Jayesh needed was the master con artist who would put the finishing touches on the operation. Jayesh had thought of Max, since he lived in the region now.
“I’m out of the game, Jayesh. I’m through. I’m not leaving paradise.”
Jayesh had insisted, saying he’d give Max a bigger cut — half the take — but Max didn’t bite. He wouldn’t sacrifice his retirement for all the gold the world had to offer.
Not long after Jayesh’s call, Sophie Stroner, Valéria Michieka’s daughter, announced she was coming to visit. The news had been a bit of a surprise, though a happy one, indeed. He hadn’t heard from Valéria in such a long time, but Max couldn’t blame her. Things had ended badly between them. It had taken him months to purge himself of the shape of her next to him, and all that time he could only dream of her calling him out of the blue, or sending him a simple email. Max was a proud man; he wanted her to take the first step toward reconciliation. Perhaps Sophie’s visit was a sign.
Max had rented a villa from an Italian industrialist, a dazzling white building looking out over the Indian Ocean. He spent his days strolling along the beach, heading south, into isolation, or north, until he reached Lamu with its handful of hotels, three or four decent restaurants, and the busy life of a small Swahili town with its port and mule trains carrying spices and other goods.
That was where Max went to meet Sophie. Her plane was coming from Bukoba in Tanzania, via Nairobi, and had landed an hour earlier on the other side of the strait where the tiny Lamu airport lay. He spotted her among the tourists, standing in the shuttle, working to keep her balance as the captain brought the boat to a stop at the pier. She was twenty-five and girlish and would probably always look that way, like her mother.
He offered her his hand, and she stepped onto dry land. Slung over her shoulder, her small travel bag showed that she wasn’t staying long. To reach Shela, they could go on foot along the beach, the way Max usually did, or they could take a dhow that would drop them off in front of the Peponi Hotel. Sophie was tired, she had set out early from Nairobi, and she was thirsty. Max took her to the bar in the little hotel facing the port, one of the few authorized to sell alcohol, since Lamu was in Muslim territory.
“Happy to see you again,” Sophie said, once they were sitting in the dim room.
Max suspected her visit wasn’t a simple social call. “You came back to Africa,” she continued.
Max smiled. After his breakup with Valéria, he’d lost his attachment to the continent, yet decided to stay on temporarily. He liked Lamu. It felt as if it belonged to another world, with its sandy streets and sticky humidity.
“How’s your mother?”
“Fine. Very good, actually.”
A number of years earlier, when she graduated from Makerere University, law degree in hand, Valéria had opened a practice in Bukoba in northwest Tanzania, near the Ugandan border, right on the shores of Lake Victoria. In the Kagera region, to be exact. A place cut off from the rest of Tanzania, closer to Kampala or Nairobi than to Dar es Salaam, the former capital and the country’s biggest city. The area inhabited by the Haya people had once been a prosperous kingdom, highly developed economically, but all that had disappeared when the Germans, then the British, colonized the country at the beginning of the twentieth century. Things went slowly downward from then on. The region developed at a painfully slow pace. Today, as far as roads went, there was only one paved section south of Bukoba, the administrative centre, and the rest of the network was made up of rough dirt tracks, or barely passable trails used by farmers and fishermen from the surrounding villages.
The area around Lake Victoria had witnessed the bloodiest conflicts of recent years, the legacy of the colonization that bled the region dry, thanks to the work of Western predators. Refugees from Rwanda and Burundi to the west found relatively safe haven in Kagera during the 1994 genocide. Two decades earlier, people escaping Idi Amin Dada’s regime to the north crossed the Ugandan border in search of something close to peace. Not to mention AIDS, which devoured the survivors and decimated families and whole villages. In the Kagera region at one point, according to Valéria, nearly a quarter of the population was infected, the highest rate in East Africa.
In other words, Bukoba and the surrounding area summed up what was most beautiful and most terrifying about Africa. In that part of Tanzania, history seemed to have revisited the tragedies and cataclysms of past centuries and given them an exotic colouring. Evil, surely, but in a luxuriant environment. Living hell in a magnificent setting designed by a vengeful, cruel, ironic god.
That was where Valéria offered her legal services to a population that couldn’t pay for them. In Dar es Salaam, things would have been easier. But she chose Bukoba for one particular reason: the terrible hunting down of albinos, a wound in the social fabric that decimated families and spread destruction.
For genetic reasons, Tanzania counted more albinos — a total of two hundred thousand according to some estimates — than any other African country. And Africa’s albino population was already that much higher than in Europe or in the Americas.
Since the beginning of time, people have attributed magical powers to these “white Africans.” This superstition pushed gangs of criminals in search of profit to scour the countryside for albinos of any age, kidnapping, killing, and cutting them up, then selling pieces of their bodies to medicine men and healers who flogged them to their customers. An albino would disappear, never to be seen again, the only trace of his or her existence now contained in some trinket or lucky charm.