Credit Agent 007.24 – The Legend
Credit Agent 007.24, International Credit Manager-at-large, earns a citation for LC busting and has an incredible adventure.
The Beginning ( 1994 )
CA 007.24 swung his ergonomic chair through 180 degrees and calmly contemplated the panoramic view of the London streets below his office. Two Fire Tenders were racing down the road from the Marylebone Fire Station, for the third time that day. Despite their size they were wending their way delicately through the traffic; sirens and hooters blearing. Another false alarm no doubt. As the Tenders roared across the junction below 007.24’s secret address in W1 and passed out of sight, Samuel James Bond Barrett (CA 007.24) – often stirred but never shaken – noticed the awning outside his favourite café, Cappuccetto’s, flapping lazily in the spring breeze. Sam checked his watch, 11:40, only 20 minutes before he could escape the email and zip out to Cappuccetto’s for his usual lunch. Toasted bagel and tuna-mix, cappuccino and half a litre of good tasting Italian water – still, not sparkling.
Day in and day out for two weeks now Sam had been catching up with his work in the office. He was beginning to feel that his reputation as the best ‘international-credit-manager-at-large, trouble-shooting-consultant and solution-finder’ of the Agence Internationale de Crédit would evaporate if he was not soon given a fresh assignment. What was the point of being a secret Credit Agent, with an office at a secret location and working for the AIC if all he did was routine analysis, paper-work, email, budget preparation, upward feedback and the like, for weeks on end?
As Sam reluctantly swung round to face his PC screen and return to his office chores he noticed a new message arrive. It was from Remy Lapin, the owner of a trading company operating in West and Central Africa. Would this be the break that Sam was hoping for? With eager anticipation he reached for his mouse, pointed and double-clicked …..
Yes, yes, yes, Sam whooped with joy! Remy had accepted Sam’s recommendation. Sam had received approval to visit Kinshasa. His mission - to try to find an alternative to the 50 or so Letters of Credit Remy’s company was receiving every month.
CA 007.24 sprang to his feet, lifted his copy of the ‘Rough Guide to West Africa’ from the shelf above his desk and headed out to lunch … first stop Cappuccetto’s … then Abidjan … then Kinshasa via Brazzaville ….
A daylight flight via Paris took Sam winging south to Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) a few days later. He recalled crossing the spectacular red-brown dust haze that was the Sahara and the complete contrast of lush vegetation, with vast orderly palm plantations that rushed past below, as Abidjan approached. Floating on a tepid lagoon, with a channel punched through to the Gulf of Guinea to connect it to world trade routes, the city stood proud in the middle distance as 007.24 stepped out of the aircraft. He immediately gasped as the thick, hot, humid air enveloped him and perspiration sprang from every pore.
Clutching his Yellow Card (WHO proof of Yellow Fever inoculation) he descended the steps and strode across the concrete apron to the arrivals hall, quickened his pace past the man in a white (syringe at the ready) coat, and searched the throng for his contact. The recognition protocol was to be, approach man holding large white card reading ‘Agent Secret 007.24’, proffer right hand and announce ‘Barrett, Samuel James Bond Barrett’ discreetly. That accomplished and his passport brusquely removed, SJB followed meekly as his contact elbowed his way to the front of the queue for immigration, and remonstrated with the official. The arrival formalities thus dealt with Sam was directed to the maelstrom of heaving bodies that passed for the baggage collection hall. Helpfully every baggage trolley was supplied with a man eager to handle a passenger’s luggage and not about to take ‘non merci’ seriously. Sam fretted for a moment about the codes and instructions carefully secreted in his bags. Seizing that moment a trolley-man assumed consent and took charge of Sam’s bags, codes and all. Soon 007.24’s luggage was being screened by customs officials through a combination of hand-search and antiquated x-ray machine. Much loud conversation followed as the trolley-man (it seemed to Sam) expressed his frustration at having to wait for checks that were patently a waste of time. As Sam burst out into the arrivals hall with a throng of humanity his contact smiled, shock his hand again and led him outside, back into the blazing sunshine to await his driver. Trolley-man followed obediently. Sam frantically struggled to find an appropriate banknote to give trolley-man, just as frantically as he struggled to find the French-language-switch in the dark recess of his brain to which it had escaped. Who was that fool who told him ‘everyone speaks English’? If only he had paid more attention to Madame in Credit Agent French classes.
A hair-raising ride, punctuated with limited conversation during which Sam committed many sins in the eyes of the Académie Française but communicated, with the help of his driver’s patient guessing and corrections, brought Sam to the office of Remy Lapin. In the Plateau business district Sam gazed out of Remy’s office window at the skyscrapers proudly carrying the names of their occupants, banks, oil companies, hotels and so on, while down at the street edge enterprising cheerful women peeled coconuts, with machetes, and prepared other delicacies as snacks for the office workers.
Sixty hours later, rested and fully briefed, Sam shock hands with his driver once more and they set off for the airport. It was midnight but the amazingly cosmopolitan Hôtel Ivoire was still buzzing with life as they left. The shopping boulevard, the patisserie (serving excellent croissants at breakfast), the cinema and the bar still filled with voices and the music of Africa. Sadly the ice-rink had been closed for renovations, but Sam did manage a swim in the ‘lagoon pool’ and some ten-pin bowling.
CA 007.24 sprang from the car outside the airport building but was halted in his stride as he seemingly was enveloped in a fog. Quick-witted as ever he soon realized that his spectacles has misted up as he moved from the air-conditioned car to the muggy outdoor heat. That could have been dangerous since he almost ignored the armed guard checking that only passengers entered the departure hall!
Approaching Brazzaville in the midst of a thunderstorm at 4am on an Air Afrique flight was not part of the cunning plan SJB had in mind when he set out to ‘LC bust’ but the weather could not be avoided and there was nowhere else to land. With lightening flashing and the rain pelting against the fuselage, the pilots mustered all their obvious skill and bravado to set the Boeing down safely. Amazingly the storm ceased almost as soon as the aircraft reached its stand, but as Sam emerged his clothes became drenched anyway with sweat.
After a shower and four hour’s sleep, followed by breakfast at the Hilton, the agency’s courier collected Sam for the short journey to the river’s edge. The mighty Zaire (or is it the Congo) filled the 15 kilometres between Brazzaville and its sister Kinshasa, whose tall buildings loomed in the distance. The dockside did not disappoint Sam. A ferry had just arrived after a three month or more journey from Kisangani, replete with assorted passengers. The scene was straight out of that fabled National Geographic article, even down to the woman sitting on the dockside guarding her precious stock of smoked monkeys.
The agency’s powerful speed-boat whisked Sam across the expanse of fast flowing, opaque water and rounded an island to reveal a ships’ graveyard of beached hulks rotting in the sunshine, before easing into the Zairian bank. A brief discussion with a man (apparently a customs and immigration official) followed on the sandy bank and then 007.24 was on his way to Remy’s Kinshasa office, to brief his local guide. As his driver steered them resolutely past the burnt out shells of buildings (evidence of a looting spree several years earlier) and avoided the many pot-holes, Sam marvelled at the smiling faces of the people, and at their evident industry and enterprise. He was amazed to see those who tended mini-vegetable gardens on the road verge, those who offered for sale a can of motor oil or a hub-cap on the roadside, and those who operated a barber shop under the shade of a handy tree. Sam was shocked and saddened to see the poverty and victims of polio, but heartened by the sight of uniformed school children hurrying to class.
Credit Agent Barrett took these few moments to review the questions he wished answered in a series of interrogations over the coming days.
· Was it true that buyers had to deposit US dollar cash funds equivalent to the amount of a Letter of Credit before local banks would process an application?
· Was he correct when he calculated that bank charges were absorbing some US$800,000 per year of precious foreign currency? Currency that could rather be spent on purchasing more of the motor gasoline, diesel (gas oil) and jet fuel Remy was selling?
· Why didn’t buyers merely pay that cash in advance to Remy’s company, and thereby avoid costly bank charges?
Later at the office, Sam conferred with Remy’s local partner Ernest Marteau - code name: Sérieux – regarding interviews to be arranged, and met other operatives. Lunch was taken at a comfortable restaurant owned by a Belgium couple. When Sam asked Sérieux what he had in the large and very bulky brown envelope under his arm as they entered the eatery, he answered; ‘Cash to pay for lunch, but you better not linger over the meal or we’ll have to send to the office for more!’
Predictably the bankers interrogated by Sam all made reference to regulations (les règlements) of the Central Bank prohibiting ‘payment in advance for imports’. Having passed through several banking halls echoing with emptiness, the whack-whack of largely spent fans and the dripping sweat of idol bank tellers (banks were closed to the public, only business customers were allowed in by appointment) 007.24’s well honed intuition told him banks had a vested interest in maintaining the LC status quo.
Pointing out that the product being sold by Remy was in fact already in Zaire, in bonded storage, did not move the bankers to reconsider their position. ‘Contra les règlements’ they repeated in the fashion of prisoners-of-war repeating their name, rank and serial number.
Sam sensed he needed a collaborator so, over dinner of lobster thermidor, followed by huge-steak, beans and mash, washed down with a lovely South African Cabernet Merlot, he asked Sérieux to arrange meetings with his customers, the service station operators.
All three customers expressed willingness to pay in advance but only one, a young Dutch national, offered to investigate further. He ordered a copy of ‘les règlements’ and made an appointment with an official at the Central Bank.
Having planted the seeds of subversion in Kinshasa’s commercial community, and confident that Jan Schild would find a way to convert from LC to cash in advance, SJB began the journey home.
Sérieux had been called to Abidjan for debriefing so they travelled together across the river. They were met by the same courier in her same rusted ‘the passenger door doesn’t open’ antiquated vehicle for the drive to the airport. Brazzaville was bristling with army and police though. Several roads were closed. The courier muttered about the imminent return of the President, from a visit to Paris, being the cause of the military activity. Four kilometres from the airport the courier was ordered to stop her vehicle and told she could go no further. She bravely remonstrated with the heavily armed soldier, asking how her passengers could travel to the airport with their luggage, saying they had a plane to catch. ‘Aller à pied!’ (go on foot) was the unsympathetic reply! Fortunately the courier soon found a small Air Afrique van that was shuttling passengers from that point to the airport and loaded Sam, Sérieux and their luggage on board, bidding them ‘bon voyage’.
Given the massive army presence, arrival at and process through the airport was uneventful until the President arrived, except that is for the bizarre experience of checking in beside a corpse borne in a coffin complete with viewing window.
Steps were positioned opposite the main building and a red carpet was laid in a ‘U’ shape. A military band took up position along the first section of the carpet, a guard of honour manned the second (Army, Air Force and Navy), and suited representatives of the diplomatic corps perspired heavily along the third section, with their backs to the building. The President’s plane arrived and out he came, well Sam though it was him since there was a short man surrounded by four large men who Sam took to be body-guards. This ten-legged mass moved down the stairs, turned right and processed along the carpet, paused briefly while the band played the national anthem, passed the guard of honour, passed the diplomats, and entered the building.
Meanwhile SJB and Sérieux enjoyed the spectacle of all the other passengers leaving the plane by the rear door, carrying what was obviously ‘shopping’ across the apron, heading straight for the building, completely oblivious of the President’s progress.
Once 600 LCs a year were essential then they were discarded
A month later international-credit-manager-at-large Credit Agent Samuel James Bond Barrett read Jan Schild’s proposal, while enjoying his usual lunch at Cappuccetto’s. He smiled with self-satisfaction and ordered a second cappuccino, much to the surprise of the waitress, a recent arrival from Lithuania.
Just as 007.24 had thought, it was possible for Remy’s buyers to pay cash in advance!
Letters of Credit would no longer be required. More money would be made available to purchase more product by avoiding bank charges. Banks in Zaire, Belgium, France and the USA would soon be wondering why their income had suddenly shrunk!
What a triumph! Almost enough of a thrill to compensate for all those hours dedicated to paperwork and office administration.
© Copyright 2003 R K Wells