The Missing American

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When her dreams of rising through the police ranks crash around her, 26-year-old Emma Djan is unsure what will become of her life in Accra. Through a sympathetic former colleague, Emma joins a private detective agency. Meanwhile, Gordon Tilson, a middle-aged widower in Washington DC, has found solace in an online community after his wife’s passing. He’s even met a young Ghanaian widow he cares about. When Gordon runs off to Ghana to surprise his new love and disappears, his only son Derek goes after him, fearing for his father s life. The case will drag both Emma and Derek into a world of sakawa scams, fetish priests, and those willing to keep things secret through death.



Books by the author


The Inspector Darko Dawson Mysteries

Wife of the Gods

Children of the Street

Murder at Cape Three Points

Gold of Our Fathers

Death by His Grace


The Emma Djan Mysteries

The Missing American


Other Books

Death at the Voyager Hotel



Copyright © 2020 by Kwei Quartey

This is a work of fiction. The characters, dialogue, and incidents depicted are a product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by

Soho Press, Inc.

227 W 17th Street

New York, NY 10011

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Quartey, Kwei, author.

The missing American / Kwei Quartey.

ISBN 978-1-64129-070-8

eISBN 978-1-64129-071-5

1. Fiction/Mystery & Detective/Police Procedural. 2. Fiction/Mystery & Detective/Women Sleuths. 3. Mystery fiction. 4. Suspense fiction.

LCC PS3617.U37 M57 2020 | DDC 813/.6dc23

Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


To Ahmed Hussein-Suale, a Ghanaian journalist martyred
on Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Part One


January 4, Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana

Lying flat with the stock of the long-range rifle pressed firmly against his shoulder, the assassin positioned himself on the gable roof of the UT Bank building off Shippers Council Road. His legs were stretched straight out in a V on either side of the roof's ridge. He would have preferred a flat surface, but the advantages of this location easily outweighed any drawbacks. From this angle, he had an unobstructed view of the road through the Zeiss scope.

He waited. When the moment arrived, he would place the pad of his right index finger on the trigger rather than the crease between the first and second joints. That could result in a sideways torque on squeezing the trigger. So too could wrapping the thumb around the buttstock. Leave the thumb on the stock pointing forward toward the end of the barrel—that was what he had learned in his first days as an officer in the Ghana Police Service's SWAT Panther Unit. Now, two years later, he was one of the best marksmen among his peers. Unfortunately, GPS talk was cheap, and they never put their money where their mouth was. Only the sniper's freelance work, like this assignment, bought him the good life—a nice car, good clothes, new furniture. And women, of course.

Political rallies in Ghana are a serious business. There's blaring music, dancing troupes, and handkerchief-waving groups of women in matching outfits. Gangs of ferocious biker youths careen erratically through the streets, sometimes colliding with cars and each other, but these excitable young men, their bodies soused with adrenaline, leap right back up and keep riding.

So it was for Bernard Evans-Aidoo campaigning in the city of Sekondi-Takoradi against incumbent President Bannerman. Big, charismatic, and dressed flamboyantly in his signature red, black, white, and green—the colors of the National Democratic Congress party, the NDC. Evans-Aidoo stood out of the sunroof of his black Benz and waved to the thrilled crowds lining Shippers Council Road. A full brass band, rocking and high-stepping in rhythmic unison, preceded the slow-moving vehicle, and behind the car was a bunch of random kids and teenagers whirling and jumping up and down with unspecified exuberance. Every so often, the Benz paused and Evans-Aidoo got out with surprising agility to press palms with his fans. He saw the worshipping, idolizing expression in their eyes as they stretched out their hands to be blessed by his touch.

It was the candidate's third stop for the day: Axim, Tarkwa, and now Sekondi-Takoradi. There had been the inevitable delays at the two prior rallies and Evans-Aidoo and the entourage were late. Even though they had started the parade before dusk, darkness had descended quickly around 6 p.m., as it always does at the equator. But that was no impediment. The campaign had a vehicle with a generator and bright lights that traveled at the head of the procession, sharply spotlighting the popular man who had set the youth on fire with his promises. He had pledged first, to sack every single corrupt official in the Bannerman government; second, to shunt away some of Ghana's petroleum and natural gas revenue into programs that would benefit ordinary men and women, particularly the largely unemployed youth. It was a classic taking from the rich to give to the poor. These young people, so hungry for a livelihood, truly loved Evans-Aidoo, and they had waited for him for hours in the ferocious sun. Now he was here, and he didn't disappoint as he put on this dazzling show. He was larger than life physically and symbolically.

The cacophony from the cheering crowds, the band, and the noisy mobile generator prevented anyone from hearing a distinct gunshot. Evans-Aidoo's body dropped so suddenly from view that few people grasped that anything was wrong.

But inside the Benz, terror unfolded. Evans-Aidoo had collapsed like a sack of yams into the lap of his campaign manager, who let out a high-pitched scream as the minister's blood sprayed her and the tan leather seats. The bodyguard in the front scrambled into the back seat to shield his boss. The chauffeur craned to look behind. "What happened? What happened?"

"Drive forward!" the bodyguard shouted. "Drive!"

The Benz shot forward and crossed the street's center line. Tires squealing, it skirted the generator vehicle and kept going. People at the roadside were screaming, but it was not jubilation anymore. It was panic. Something bad had happened, but no one knew exactly what.

The manager in the Benz was shrieking, her head turned away from the sight of Evans-Aidoo limp and half wedged behind the passenger seat. The bodyguard tried to lift his boss's head, but it was slick with blood and brain matter and it slipped from his hands.

Hyperventilating and gripping the steering wheel like death itself, the chauffeur said, "Where? Where?"

"Takoradi Hospital," the bodyguard stammered. He was close to weeping. "Hurry!"

One day earlier


January 3, Accra, Ghana

With darkened windows, sirens going, and small flags of Ghana flapping on their hoods, three shiny, black SUVs raced along Independence Avenue. Ordinary mortals on the street knew the drill and pulled their vehicles to the side to give the VIP free passage.

In this case, the dignitary taking precedence over the plebes of Accra was the Inspector General of Police, James Akrofi, who was in the back seat of the middle vehicle. He didn't look up from his work as he made last-minute changes to the draft of his Ghana Police Service Report to the Blue-Ribbon Commission on the Eradication of Corruption in Ghana. It was a mouthful, but before President J. K. Bannerman had been elected to power almost four years ago by an overwhelming majority of Ghanaian voters, he had campaigned consistently on that one bedeviling issue: corruption. Tapping into a lurking sense among Ghana's citizens that the nation was slipping backward like a truck mired in muck, Bannerman had persuaded Ghanaians that corruption was standing in the way of every individual's development and prosperity. "Ghana fails when corruption prevails," his albeit clumsy slogan, had caught on. Bannerman had promised the nation a new era of The Clean and Enlightened Society. The people reached out to him with the fervor of a parched man in the Sahara yearning for an oasis.

To be honest, like the engine of an antique car, the anti-corruption machine had been slow to start. Now, as Bannerman's first term was ending and the political parties were revving up for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of the year, the president's track record had been spotty—some even said too little, too late. There was some truth to the characterization that implementation was not Bannerman's strong suit and that he was more of an idealist than a pragmatist. Privately, Akrofi thought the truth was somewhere in the middle. The bottom line was that Bannerman was now vulnerable to one man: Bernard Evans-Aidoo.

The SUV convoy swept through the gates of Jubilee House and sped across the vast square toward the presidential palace, which was built in the shape of the golden stool of the Asantehene. The Office of the President was expecting Akrofi, so from the Palace entrance to the final security door of President Bannerman's inner sanctum, passage was quick and all the checkpoints along the way essentially a formality. Everyone knew who the IGP was: one of Bannerman's closest friends and advisors.

Mr. President, 63, had a stern but avuncular demeanor, his charcoal ash hair suggesting wisdom. He strode forward, hand outstretched. "James! Ete sen?"

"Nyame adom, J. K.," Akrofi said, grasping the hand with a firm, enthusiastic grip. Their eyes met and held, a testament to the strong bond between them.

"Good to see you, good to see you," Bannerman said. "Come, let's sit down."

Akrofi followed the president several meters across the crimson carpet with Ghana's coat of arms in the center. They had a 360-degree view of Accra through the tinted, floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass, the cost of which had no doubt contributed to the bloated $50 million cost of the palace. But Akrofi didn't find that necessarily bad. In what country was it not fashionable to complain about the extravagant residences of the ruling class?

Out of respect, Akrofi waited for the leader of the nation to sit down before he did. "How are dear Josephine and the children?" Bannerman asked, turning his body halfway toward his friend.

"Everybody is doing well, by His Grace, thank you," Akrofi said. "Josephine is in DC at the moment winning friends and influencing people, so to speak, and then she will be in England to see Kwame."

Bannerman's expression softened. "How is he doing these days?"

Akrofi lowered his gaze with a touch of sadness. "You know. He has his good and bad days."

"Yes, of course. I have faith that one day he will be well by God's grace."

"Thank you, J. K. I appreciate your good wishes."

"You are always welcome," Bannerman said. "So, let's see what you have for me." Akrofi handed him the folder with the report and the president read it through once.

"Outstanding," he said at length. "This is simply first class and I like your four-part plan to eliminate corruption at the top. I think you've done a lot to change the culture of middle management and the junior officers, but now it's time to target the upper echelons."

"You have my sincere word I will endeavor to do so," Akrofi said. "I admire what you are trying to do for the country."

He and Bannerman had been in law school together, and high school and college before that. Akrofi had heavily supported his friend's presidential campaign and Bannerman had promised him the IGP post in return. One didn't rise to that position. It was a civilian appointment made entirely at the president's wishes.

Bannerman rose to place the documents on his rosewood desk imported from Italy, and then turned to the view from the southwest window. Accra's afternoon traffic was as clogged as bad plumbing. From here, one could just see the roof of the Ghana Police Service headquarters. On the other side of the double-lane Ring Road East, several embassies nestled among the trees.

Akrofi came to stand beside the president.

"You and I are cut from the same cloth," Bannerman said quietly. "So, you understand how much I want this. Obviously, I can't abolish corruption completely, but I want Ghanaians to come to regard it in a different way—as a kind of cancer that has metastasized to all parts of society. Now it must be surgically removed everywhere it is found. Then things will begin to change."

Akrofi nodded. "I do understand."

"We will drum anti-corruption into the Ghanaian psyche," Bannerman said. "Billboards, radio, TV, social media. I'll have rappers and football players endorse the plan. With their help, I'll create a new consciousness." He looked at Akrofi. "We are warriors against a worthy foe, but together, we can vanquish."

"By 'worthy foe' you mean corruption? Or Evans-Aidoo?"

"Corruption. Evans-Aidoo can't sustain his position in the polls. This business about him redistributing oil wealth to the citizens is nonsense. We are not Norway."

"No country is—except Norway," Akrofi said with a wry smile. "I'm a little concerned about him though, because his followers believe him and there are more and more of them every day. It's all false hope, for sure, but the nature of people is that they cling to that."

Akrofi waited for his friend to respond. Instead, Bannerman turned away with his head down and hands thrust deeply in his pockets. Akrofi had an awful foreboding that if Bernard Evans-Aidoo wasn't stopped, Bannerman's presidency would be over.


Nii Kwei was a "sakawa boy," meaning he made his money through Internet swindles. "Saka" was the Hausa word for "to put in," referring to adding items to the virtual shopping cart. Nii was well-educated, having completed his BA in political science at the University of Ghana, but that field didn't exactly invite a tsunami of job offers. Nii Kwei's options were limited to being either unemployed or underemployed, and he alternated between those two glum circumstances for about a year after graduation.

Whenever Nii looked back on his past, he remembered clear as crystal the day his fortunes changed. Coming out of a Max Mart, he bumped into an old secondary schoolmate called Isaac and was stunned to see that Isaac owned a late model Lexus SUV—a bright red one at that. Isaac had been a loser jock prankster at school with no academic prospects. In fact, he barely scraped through senior high with grades that would never have got him into college or a trade school. How in the world was he driving his own Lexus? Nii Kwei drove an old, dent-rich Toyota Corolla—when his brother could lend it to him, that is.

"So where do you work now?" Nii Kwei asked Isaac, his conversational tone belying his curiosity.

"Internet stuff, you know," Isaac said.

"No, I don't know. What kind of Internet stuff?"

"Like overseas business."

The glint of the giant gold chain on Isaac's wrist caught Nii Kwei's eye and held it for a moment. "Come on, Isaac," he said in Ga. Switching to the vernacular always helped. "We were mates, so be straight with me. What are you doing?"

Isaac glanced around as if someone might be watching them, or maybe it was just a dramatic flourish. "Okay, let's sit inside my car and talk."

My God, Nii thought as he got in. He ran his fingers over the precisely stitched tan leather seats and stared at the Lexus's high-tech dashboard, which looked like an airplane cockpit and came with a navigation system. Why can't I have this luxury too?

In the bliss of the Lexus's air conditioning, Isaac told Nii about the world of sakawa—Internet fraud with the backing of magical powers that could make you enormously successful at making money through several scams. You accessed magical powers through an intermediary like a traditional priest, aka fetish priest. It used to be people went to a man of God—either a Christian pastor or a mallam—to request those powers, but either the MOG or God Himself was slow because the magic took too long to materialize. Fetish priests were fast. They jumped on the project immediately, and before you knew it, the sakawa boy was up and away like a racehorse.

But the price the fetish exacted from his supplicant was high. Sacrificing a couple of chickens to the gods was standard, but that was the easy part. The difficulty came with the more exotic rituals the fetish might demand of the sakawa boy. Certain items were highly treasured by the gods, and if a sakawa boy truly desired any modicum of success, he needed to bring those to the priest. The most prized offerings included the hair of either an oburoni or an albino, the thighbone of a child, a person's lips, and male or female genitalia. The best way to procure these body parts was to have an arrangement with someone at the mortuary in a large hospital.

Isaac detailed how one of his fetish priests asked him to have sex with three different women every day for a week and provide video evidence. Failure to obey the fetish could result in an instant loss of income, sickness, death, or all the above.

"But how do you actually make money?" Nii asked Isaac. "Is it like the 419?"

In the infamous "419" scams, a made-up Nigerian oil tycoon emails you and promises you a percentage of millions of dollars if you send him a mere $5,000.

"That's the one everyone knows," Isaac said with a smile. "Nigerians invented it and it still works, but Ghanaians have taken it to a new, higher level and we're now better at it than they are. We have several techniques now."

Isaac told Nii Kwei about the Iraq war vet scam: an American marine is stranded in Turkey/Jordan/Qatar en route back home to the US from his rotation. The authorities have seized the vet's passport and the only way he can get out is to pay $3,000, but he has no way of getting his hands on that kind of money. Can you, the recipient of this desperate email, help? His life could be in danger if he doesn't pay up within the next seventy-two hours. He will reimburse you as soon as he returns stateside.

There were others: romance cons, lottery scams, identity theft, credit card fraud, inheritance scams, business venture scams, Yahoo and Facebook scams—take your pick. The only thing more amazing than the amount of money one could rake in through these illegal channels was just how gullible these white people could be—especially Americans. Some of them had read and knew about these Internet cons, and yet still they allowed themselves to be duped. Amazing.

But the gold scam was the king. This brought in thousands and thousands of dollars. Arab people fall for this one a lot because they love gold. The Chinese? Forget it. They're so good, they can scam the scammers.

The gold scam begins with the search for a suitable overseas scam target, known as the mugu, which literally means "fool." Let's call him "Joe." Perhaps Joe is a gold investor or otherwise interested in gold. It's a good idea to give Joe's name and his picture to a fetish priest to check (by spiritual means) if Joe is a good target. The sakawa boy entices Joe to Ghana with the promise of a sale of 24kt gold from the country's rich reserves of the magical, glittering metal. The goal is to get Joe to Ghana to make a purchase of twenty to forty kilos of gold ore. Joe's independent testing shows the ore contains gold, but somewhere in the process, a member of the "scam team" switches the container, and what Joe pays for is, in fact, dirt with copper shavings that give the "ore" a sufficiently golden appearance. When he returns to the States, he finds he has paid upwards of $200,000 for worthless material.

Isaac had participated in more than one gold scam. In fact, in one of them, it was his job to make the notorious "switch" at a moment the mugu was distracted by someone else in the room.

"You don't feel bad about taking people's money like that?" Nii Kwei asked.

Isaac looked at him with a mixture of charity and pity. "You studied political science at the university, right?"


"Didn't they teach you about the exploitation of Ghana and Africa by white people?"

"Of course," Nii Kwei said. "Everyone knows about that, but most of these people you take money from didn't directly exploit us—"

"What?" Isaac interrupted. "But they are the direct beneficiaries of exploitation through the ages, so they are just as guilty. They owe us the money, all those white people. They have stolen our gold, diamonds, timber, oil—and of course, our people. They took us away as slaves, and do you know they are still taking our nurses and doctors—"

"Nurses and doctors run away from Ghana of their own free will," Nii pointed out. "They want a better life, so why not? Me too, if I can go to aburokyire, I'll go. And so will you!"

Isaac sucked on his teeth and shook his head. "So, they can use me like a slave? I don't think so."

"But there are good people there too," Nii Kwei argued. "Who knows, maybe you are robbing some poor old white lady who contributes to aid organizations working in Africa."

"You say what? Poor old white lady." Isaac doubled over with mirth. "You're funny, Nii. An American poor person is rich compared to us. It doesn't cost them anything. They don't even feel it."

Nii Kwei suspired and looked out his window for a moment. This wasn't an argument he could win, and besides, Isaac was not wildly off the mark regarding foreign exploitation. Still, for Nii, the leap to duping individuals of their money was a problem. And yet, despite Nii's reservations, he felt himself being sucked in. Just look at this Lexus, he kept thinking. My God.

"Do you think I can do it?" he asked Isaac. "The sakawa, I mean. I'm not saying I want to—just wondering."

"But of course!" Isaac exclaimed. "Nii, you are smart. You're wasting your life right now. Look, just try it for some few months and then you can decide whether you want to continue or not."

Notwithstanding guidance from Isaac, those first few months of becoming a sakawa boy were not easy for Nii Kwei. Isaac showed Nii Kwei the ropes and introduced him to someone called Kweku Ponsu. He was the traditional priest who was to become Nii Kwei's default spiritualist. Ponsu put Nii Kwei through initiation rites that were a trial by fire. More than once, Nii was on the verge of quitting, but he endured.

Now, three years

On Sale
Jan 14, 2020
Page Count
432 pages