I am Mrs. Mariam Sese Seko, widow of late President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I am moved to write you this letter in confidence ... Most of my husband's million[s] of dollars [were] deposited in Swiss bank[s] and other countries [and] coded for safe purpose because the new head of state, (Dr.) Mr. Laurent Kabila, has made arrangement[s] with the Swiss government and other European countries to freeze all my late husband's treasures ...
I have deposited the sum [of] thirty million United State[s] dollars (US$30,000,000.00) with a security company, for safekeeping. What I want you to do is to indicate your interest that you will assist us by receiving the money on our behalf. —Recently received Hotmail message
My friends can't believe it. All they ever get is junk e-mail—baldness cures, coupons from Internet casinos, scams from online stockbrokers. They say, "How come nobody ever wants my help? I'd do it. I could receive the thirty million." I say, "Look, don't take it personally." The thing is, people trust me. They know that for me, it's not about the money. I just feel good about myself whenever I help a widow get her hands on the nest egg her late husband squirreled away, when a smile crinkles the face of an elderly generalissimo who learns that his life's savings have been converted to bullion that is stashed where class-action lawsuits won't ever find it. Besides, it's not as easy as you might think. Everyone falls silent and glowers when you show up at some chateau in Martinique or pink-marble palace in Casablanca: the sullen playboy sons in maroon blazers, the balding former chefs de gouvernement in dark glasses, the tough guys in Armani suits with Glocks bulging in their shoulder holsters. Arguments break out about the wisdom of entrusting millions to an American drifter who shaves three times a week, wears shorts and a San Jose Sharks T-shirt to work, and has lost track of his own checking account. Things can turn ugly: broken chandeliers, bullet chips in the travertine walls, bodies that have to be fished out of the caviar tub and dumped in a shantytown in the middle of the night.
The only thing to do is to be as straightforward as possible. I say, "Folks, I sense some tension here today. The last thing I want is to cause hard feelings in the family. I can walk out right now and forget you ever e-mailed me."
That usually breaks the ice. Despite what you may have heard, Mrs. Mariam Sese Seko is an elegant lady who fluently speaks the French of her Brussels convent-school days. She asks, "What kind of cut are you talking about?"
A stocky man in a black suit explodes: "But you can't seriously—"
"Nguanda, shut up," she says. Then she turns to me. "Besides, you've done this sort of thing before, no? Ceausescu's kids, the Duvaliers, Pol Pot?"
"Forgive me, Madam First Lady, but even if I had helped these people, I couldn't discuss it. But rest assured, I've got experience. And I usually get thirty percent."
You have to be discreet, but I can say this: I get around. Many's the time I fronted multimillion-dollar wire transfers for relatives of a late Persian Gulf head of state. I once flew to Hawaii to receive a container full of shoes for a gentle, modest lady who really doesn't deserve the ridicule she's suffered at the hands of the media. And people never stop and wonder how a former East African president who fled his nation penniless back in the late seventies came up with the cash for the home in Jidda, the Olympic-size pool, the powder-blue Camaro and turquoise Maserati, the gold-plated accordion he likes to finger while watching Charlie's Angels reruns.
Idi didn't trust me either in the beginning, but nowadays he's e-mailing jokes and photos of his grandkids. Whenever I'm in town, we'll spend the evening eating sloppy joes, swigging from a bottle of twelve-year-old Glenfiddich, and watching Nick at Nite. He has changed, you know. The old swagger is gone. He no longer wears the uniform and ivory-handled six-shooters, and he has bloated to Falstaffian proportions; he lumbers around in his skivvies and Muslim skullcap and cowboy boots. What would he do without me? To be honest, I feel a little sorry for him.
After a few hits of the hooch Idi will strike up a tune on the accordion, and we sing:
She was a slender refugee, the apple of my eye.
She baked me a mighty tasty crocodile pie.
Singin', "Baby, I'm a-love you, till the day you die."
The man can get a little crazy when he sings. Abruptly he'll grab his Kalashnikov, blow away the Chihuly glass on the mantelpiece, riddle the Peter Howson painting of Britney Spears. It's better to ignore this. Once one of his wives—Avin, the Algerian—came down to shush him, and he shot her, too.
Well, if I hadn't been there, who would have reached the crown prince on his mobile in Crawford, slipped those hundreds to the cops, found an Army-Navy store that would deliver a body bag at one in the morning in Jidda? Who would have helped Idi stumble off to bed as a fit of drunken remorse overcame him, or sat with him till his sobbing subsided and a steely and constricted look took hold on his face? Who would have comforted him when he said, "Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to hell"?
"You, Idi? You're killing me, man. Come on. It's been a bad day, is all."
"I always end up shooting everybody: servants, wives, the kids."
"Hey, everyone loses his temper sometimes."
His bloodshot eyes settled on me. "I don't think I'll be needing your help in the future."
Right. That's what they always say. But soon he'll be running after me, he and everybody else. I'll log on to Hotmail and find—amid all those e-mails reading "NEW PILL INCREASES PENIS BY 26%" and "LAW DEGREE ONLY $49.95"—a message from Madam First Lady or Baby Doc or Idi himself, pleading, "I need you now." I'll pack a bag and be off for Zurich or the Cayman Islands. It's not that I think I'm special—anybody would do the same thing. You do it because you care.
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