Extract from Death Fund © Stina Hemming

Chapter 1

Marseille, France

September 2019

The midnight surveillance operation at the Port of Marseille-Fos had gone very wrong for investigator Alex Greene and her garde de sécurité, Max Pound. They were on a remote dock when a massive explosion rocked the area.

***

Alex and Max were at the old seaport investigating a $400 million insurance claim made by the owners of the Sinop, a Russian container ship insured by Alex’s employer, Basel Re.

Armed pirates had hijacked the ship after it left the Port of Ningbo in China, and the ship’s owners reported losing contact with the captain somewhere off the coast of Yemen. When the Sinop was finally located, anchored off Alula in Saudi Arabia, the entire cargo—450 million tons of personal protective equipment, or PPE—was gone.

It had been the second claim by the same company in as many months for piracy on the high seas, so Karl Guttman, Head of Claims for Basel Re, called in Alex to check out the client’s story. Alex and Max flew to Marseille from Paris to investigate. They were met by the captain and his first officer of the Sinop, who escorted them around the ship and refused to leave their sides.

After two hours of examining every nook and cranny, Alex called it quits.

Sure enough, the PPE was missing. No surprise there. What did surprise her was the lack of any evidence of a hijacking. The captain and the first officer had been very vague on the details. They claimed to have not seen the pirates approaching from the stern side, so when the heavily armed bandits boarded the ship, it was too late to initiate emergency procedures. Cooperating had been the only choice.

Fortunately, the pirates did not keep anyone for ransom. They had set the captain and his crew adrift on lifeboats, and no lives were lost. Unfortunately, the captain could not prove his story. The ship’s security cameras were not working, and the crew members were unavailable for interviews; they had all been sent home after the harrowing ordeal.

All very convenient, Alex thought.

After touring the vessel, Alex made a few inquiries around the port and got lucky. One of the security guards, after accepting a significant contribution to her family’s summer vacation fund, gave Alex a lead: a few days earlier, shipping containers containing the PPE were unloaded from the Yalena—another cargo ship owned by the same Russian company—into a heavily guarded warehouse on the wharf. According to the guard, the Yalena had docked at midnight to offload its freight, and the ship left port before daybreak the next day.

Alex reported the intel back to Guttmann, and he sent her a sample of the universal product code for the stolen PPE with instructions to check out the warehouse. The area’s open layout, however, made it impossible to breach security without being seen, so she and Max spent the next two days watching the warehouse from behind a wall of containers at the water’s edge.

It was nearly midnight on the second day when a silver Bentley drove up and a well-heeled woman got out and spoke to one of the security guards. Shortly after she departed, all the security guards left the pier.

Alex and Max were still waiting for the security guards to clear the parking lot when the explosion occurred.

***

The blast pitched Alex’s 140-pound frame into the air, hurling her across the wharf’s uneven concrete surface and propelling her perilously close to the inferno. Ears ringing and head throbbing, Alex crawled away from the burning debris. She was only able to make it a few yards before she collapsed.

Moments later, the sounds of sirens burst through the fiery chaos. Fighting nausea and dizziness, Alex pulled herself up and—peering through the blackened ash and glowing embers floating all around—frantically called out for Max. Her voice was lost among the wailing alarms, but she kept searching.

Alex finally spotted Max’s thermal imaging goggles near the flattened warehouse, but Max was nowhere in sight. Fearing the worst, Alex ran to the side of the pier and looked into the swirling seawater. If Max had fallen into the water, she could not save him.

Suddenly, she heard coughing and a barely audible call of “boss, boss.”

“Max!” Thank God, he was alive.

She walked unsteadily toward him. He was lying on his back near the dock’s edge.

Alex leaned over and took one of his hands in hers.

“I’m here,” she said.

Max half-opened his eyes, and blinking against the blood streaming down his forehead, whispered, “I’m okay, boss, but I think I broke my leg.”

Gathering all her strength, Alex grabbed Max by his underarms and dragged his 180-pound frame away from the edge. She gently set his head down on the concrete.

“Sit tight, Max. I’ll be right back.”

By the time Alex reached the parking lot, the emergency response vehicles had arrived with their sirens blaring, and firefighters were charging toward the blaze on the pier. She flagged down a couple paramedics and led them to Max.

Alex refused medical treatment, and after Max was safely inside an ambulance, she returned to the wharf. She had to inspect the scene: the timing was critical. Any chance of an independent investigation would be gone after the local authorities took control, and Alex still needed hard evidence to link the Sinop’s stolen cargo to the PPE allegedly stored in the warehouse—or whatever remained of it.

As she walked toward where the port security and local police were congregating, Alex noticed remnants of medical masks in the rubble on the ground. Most were too damaged for identification purposes, but she found one with the code intact. She compared the serial number on the tattered mask to the serial sequencing that Guttmann had sent her for the missing cargo.

The codes matched! The PPE in the smoldering warehouse was from the Sinop.

Alex stuffed the burnt mask into the back pocket of her ripped jeans and ignored the police officer calling after her as she walked away from the carnage.

She had what she needed.

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