Outside magazine, January 1998
It was a money-laundering scheme for rapacious dimwits and hoggish simpletons. There was $2 million in it, all told, and if I played my cards right, I'd walk out of Bamako, in the West African country of Mali, with a sizable chunk of that cash, bundled up in limp $20 and $50 and $100 bills.
I don't know how my potential benefactor picked me to share in the bonanza. I was working out, after a fashion, which is to say I was attempting to balance a rickety hotel lawn chair on a lumpy grass bank overlooking the Niger River. I was alone, and my flight home was to leave the next evening. The entire plan for the rest of the day consisted of watching the sunset. The orb in question seemed to be taking its time in this endeavor, and I was bored.
"Ah," a voice behind me said. "You speak English."
I turned to the man behind me. He was dressed in a kind of green jumpsuit with wide lapels, which he wore over a white silk shirt. The shirt was open to the sternum, and dangling from a gold chain around his neck he wore what appeared to be an enormous gold nugget. It was a style I'd describe as "street pimp '79."
"How do you know I speak English?"
He pointed at the magazine on my lap, a two-month-old issue of a weekly newsmagazine.
"Newsweek," he said. The man gestured a question at the lawn chair near mine.
"Please," I said.
"I am tired of speaking in French," my new friend announced, "and I am very bored."
"Where is the joy of life?" I asked in French, which pretty much depleted my vocabulary in that language.
The man stared at me blankly and fingered the nugget at his chest. "I am a guest in this hotel," he said abruptly.
"Good restaurant," I said.
"They speak French."
"I am from Liberia. In Liberia, we speak English." He extended a hand for me to shake in the gentle palm-against-palm African slide-away style. "My name is Fabrice."
I shook his hand and told him my name.
"Tim," Fabrice said, "we have a deal, you and I."
"We will speak English tonight, and we will not be bored."
The prospect of some conversation had its merits.
"Yes," I agreed. "We will speak English."
"Speaking English," Fabrice said. "It is good."
We sat together in mutual contemplation of the inherent excellence of the English language. Neither of us had anything to say.
"Uh, is the fighting over in Liberia?" I asked.
"Oh, yes." Fabrice brightened up a bit. Now we were speaking English.
"Whom did you support?"
"I fought with Charles Taylor."
Taylor had headed up one of the guerrilla groups that opposed former president Samuel Doe. Taylor's troops had fought in the backcountry. Another guerrilla faction, centered near the capital of Monrovia and led by a man named Prince Johnson, had arranged to meet Doe under the supervision of a West African peacekeeping force. Instead the group overwhelmed the peacekeepers, kidnapped Doe, and tortured and executed him. The initial stages of the process were recorded for posterity on videotape — Doe bleeding from the places where his ears had been — and were played on television. This was in 1990. There has been bloody factional fighting since.
"They say," I observed, "that Charles Taylor was once in jail in the United States."
"Ha!" Fabrice was having none of it. "How did he escape jail? He says he bribed a guard $30,000. In the United States. Do you believe that?"
"I guess not."
"Here," he said, reaching inside his jacket. "Here is my passport."
I looked at the document. It seemed to be a genuine Liberian passport. There was a picture of Fabrice, and underneath it was his signature: Fabrice Clark. He was one of those people who like a wide-nibbed pen, almost like a crayon, and he formed his signature one laborious letter at a time, as if printing. Fabrice was 29 years old and lived in Monrovia.
"So," he said, "you see I am who I say I am."
"I never doubted it."
"I am a businessman."
Fabrice stared off across the Niger, where the sun was just beginning to set and the sky was gaudy. "I have," Fabrice said in a confiding tone, "a liquidity problem."
And it is in the capitals of such places that expat Brits and Americans and Australians — all manner of people not native to the country — sit drinking in bars and dreaming of how they might play on government stupidity or individual greed and end up flying out with a satchel of cash in hand.
On occasion, in these joints, some friendly, slightly seedy type will throw an arm over my shoulder and let me in on his latest fast deal. It makes me wonder: Does this stuff happen to everyone who travels alone? Or am I just lucky?
Why did the American expats in Belize, for instance, think I'd want to get involved in their scheme to poison fish on the reefs and sell the surviving but seriously ill tropicals to pet stores across the United States?
Or: Why on earth would I want to get involved in a scheme to steal Balinese house dogs? Distinctive animals, the guy said. Damn things would go for a fortune in the States. We'd sell them through Dog World magazine. Call 'em Balinese Hindu Hounds, something like that. Besides, you see the way people treat them. Where are they going to have a better life?
And it really wouldn't cost me that much to get in on the ground floor.
I listen to each pitch with sheer astonishment. I collect them. And OK, maybe someday I'll be the guy flying out of Siberia with a suitcase full of money. It could happen. But chatting with Fabrice, I perceived that he thought of me as a mark, either stupid or greedy. I wondered which.
"Everyone," i informed fabrice, "has a liquidity problem."
Fabrice, for his part, glanced about in the manner of a man selling genuine Rolex watches on the street corner. He reached inside his jacket and produced a letter. The thing had been typed on thick white paper that was now a dingy gray, as if it had been dunked in water or stored in a very humid, tropical climate.
It seemed about as official as any letter in Liberia could possibly be. There was an embossed Liberian flag on the upper left-hand corner and an embossed American flag on the right. On the left side of the paper was a large Firestone logo. The rubber company had been one of the largest foreign corporations in Liberia before the recent troubles. Offsetting the Firestone logo was the seal of the U.S. Treasury.
The letter had been written on a manual typewriter, and the enclosed portion of every "e" and every "a" was black. The letter was in English, and the first line said, "This safe contains $2 million..."
The sun now lay across the Niger in a long, undulating orange streak. In the gathering darkness, Fabrice said, "My father...this is my father's gift."
As I tried to read the letter, Fabrice filled me in on the emotional mechanics of a country in revolution. His father had been a high official in the Samuel Doe government, in charge of finances. When it became very clear that the Doe government could not survive its various challenges, his father had embezzled a sizable fortune, which was put into a safe and hidden where no one could find it.
Family ties, Fabrice explained, were blood-thick, and even though Fabrice fought on the side of the rebels, his father had gotten word to him about the money and the place where it was hidden. When the fighting cooled down, Fabrice went to that place, found the safe, and opened it with the combination his father had given him. Now he was a very rich man.
"So what's your liquidity problem?" I asked.
"Read the letter, please."
"It's too dark."
"Then, Tim, please, come to my room."
He lived five doors down from me in the hotel, and our rooms were similar: an off-brand TV that got CNN International, a telephone, a long narrow bed, a ceiling fan, a wooden table, and two monastic chairs.
Fluorescent lights made the room seem bleak. The letter was written in ersatz legalese, with a lot of "wheretofores" in regard to parties of the first, second, and third part. It said, in essence, that if the two million American dollars in this safe should ever become discolored in the tropical heat and humidity where it was being kept, such money would become worthless if it was ever cleaned with a money-laundering compound not approved by the U.S. government.
The letter was signed by "Floyd Benson," who identified himself as the U.S. secretary of the treasury. Floyd used a wide-nibbed crayonlike pen to sign his name, and he seemed to draw his signature one laborious letter at a time.
I had several questions at this point.
"So, uh, Fabrice. You've got the money, but I gather it's discolored."
"This letter doesn't say which cleaning compounds are, in fact, approved by the U.S. government."
"There is only one. It is called TQ4."
"And Fabrice, excuse me, but here's where I'm having a lot of trouble. I mean, how did the secretary of the treasury know that your father was going to, uh, appropriate all this money? And why would he write him a letter? What does Floyd Benson care if some stolen money in Liberia rots away in a hidden safe?"
"This," Fabrice said reasonably, "is not the real letter."
"Because," I said, "there was a treasury secretary named Lloyd Bentsen."
"The letter is not important," Fabrice said. "When you see what I have to show you, then you'll believe me."
Rooting around in a canvas duffel, Fabrice came up with an envelope, some cotton swabs, and a small bottle full of clear liquid. The envelope contained several brown sheets of flimsy paper, the size of dollar bills. Fabrice put one on the table, poured a tiny amount of the clear liquid on a bit of cotton and began swabbing one of the papers. In a matter of 30 seconds, he had cleaned one half of one side of what appeared to be a genuine U.S. $50 bill.
"That," I said, "is incredible."
"I told you: When you see it, you believe it."
"I believe it," I said. "But what's the problem here? You just go out, get some TQ4, and you're a rich man."
"It's my liquidity situation," Fabrice said. "TQ4 is very expensive. I have no money to do this."
"What's it cost?"
"One liter is $50,000, American."
"Oh," I said. My expression told Fabrice that this was way out of my range. Still, I asked, "How much will a liter of TQ4 clean?"
"Maybe half the money."
"A million dollars."
"Maybe more, maybe less. The money is in twenties, fifties, and hundreds. You can't tell what they are. You might end up cleaning all twenties."
"Can you buy TQ4 in Bamako?"
"Oh, yes. A man I know. But it is not legal."
"No," I said. "I suppose not. But Fabrice, what is the smallest amount of TQ4 you could buy? If you had the money."
Fabrice looked me up and down in an appraising manner.
"I think perhaps $2,000."
"I might be able to get that much," I said. "I could have it wired to the Central Bank downtown by noon. But I want to figure something out first."
I took out my pen and notebook and scribbled away for a time. "Look here, Fabrice," I said finally. "Let's say you buy a liter of TQ4 and, through the luck of the draw, manage to clean $1,000,000. If we buy $2,000 worth of TQ4, and have the same luck, we'll end with $40,000."
"Yes," he said. "It could work that way."
"So here's what I propose. I'll have $2,000 wired to me tomorrow at the Central Bank. We use that money to buy TQ4. Let's say we clean $40,000. I walk away with $38,000. You take $2,000."
"But that's not fair," Fabrice said. He stamped his foot like a petulant child. "Damn it! Damn it all. It is not good. We should split the money."
"Fabrice," I said. "Fabrice, Fabrice, Fabrice. Look at me. Do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?"
"I don't understand."
"You understand this. You've got $2,000,000 to be cleaned. You have a liquidity problem. I can help. All I want is $38,000 out of $40,000. You take the other $2,000 and go buy more TQ4. You get $40,000 out of that. You buy more TQ4. Clean more money. You end up with..." I checked my calculations. "You end up with $1,962,000, minus about $98,000 in TQ4 costs. I get a flat $38,000. Now who gets the better deal? Hmmm?"
Fabrice grabbed the notebook from my hand, checked my figures, and flopped down on the hard, narrow bed, his eyes squeezed shut.
"Americans," he said, "are very smart."
"Some of us."
"Tim," he said. "You have the money tomorrow. It is $2,000. No less. I will meet you outside the Central Bank at noon."
"And then," I said, "we'll go buy the TQ4 together."
Fabrice, having been beaten in the deal, raised his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes, as if he was suffering from a migraine. "No, Tim. No, no, no. You cannot buy the TQ4 with me. It is illegal. It can only be sold to special people in the United States."
"I suppose we could get in trouble with Floyd Benson."
"There will be guns. You don't buy TQ4 in Bamako and not have a gun."
"So I just give the money to you?"
"Trust me for $2,000. Two hours later you have $38,000."
"And you wouldn't just walk away with my money?"
Fabrice opened his eyes and regarded me with a kind of bludgeoning sincerity. "Tim," he said sadly. "Tim, please, is that what you think of me?"
And so we made an agreement to meet on the steps of the bank at noon the next day. I went back to my room, looked in the mirror, sat in a chair for an hour or so, and then shifted to the bed and stared up at the ceiling fan. About three hours later the bedside phone rang. Only one person on earth knew where I was.
"Hello, Fabrice," I said.
"Tim," Fabrice said, "I have been thinking."
"You will not be on the steps of the bank at noon."
"Well, no, Fabrice, of course not."
"You were just speaking English, then."
"We both were, Fabrice. We were bored. It's like color TV."
"Tim. Now I don't think you are very smart. You have a stupid face."
Which answered my only unresolved question. There was a brief choking sound I took to be a chuckle. "You have such a stupid face," Fabrice said again. "But I enjoyed speaking English with you."
"Me too, Fabrice," I said. "It passed the time."
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal