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The Original DSR Collaborative, Serial Novel:

THE CLUB FROM HELL

A collaborative novel featuring ten writers.


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First 10 Chapters Recap



Chapter ONE by Steve Cubbins

“Oh, not again,” said John Smith as for the fourth time that evening the heater on court four started whining away to the distraction of the players, who naturally decided that as the sky was about to fall in on them they should abandon their game of squash and come upstairs to the office to complain.

Supressing the urge to tell them what he really thought, John agreed with his members. “It’s very annoying, I know, but we have the engineer coming in to service the units tomorrow, so if you can put up with the noise for the rest of tonight’s session I’m sure we’ll have it fixed in time for your next match.”

Knowing what was coming next, he added “we’ll give you 50% discount on tonight’s court, or a free first drink at the bar, if that’s ok by you gents?”

That sent the punters back onto court satisfied - they took the drink of course, they’re squash players after all - and left John to complete his paperwork for that day’s transactions and to make the call to the heater maintenance firm that he’d been putting off in the now unrealised hope that the problem on court four would just go away.

That was the last drama for the day, and at 11.45pm John was able to finish the washing up, put the day’s takings into the safe, set the alarm, turn off the lights, lock the doors, pull down the shutters and head off home at the end of another exhausting session at Vale Squash Club.

“How was last night dear?” Jill Smith asked at breakfast the next morning, “Thursdays are always busy aren’t they.”

“As busy as usual,” replied a still-sleepy John, who had as was his custom after an evening shift slept in the spare room to avoid waking his wife, who absolutely needed her ‘eight straight hours’ to be able to function as a normal human being the next day.

“Court four heater was playing up again, I’m getting HeatCo to come in and look at it today, but apart from that it was a normal Thursday, if anything counts as normal in that hell hole,” he said.

“Now, now, dear,” chided Jill, “you know you love it really, and it’s our livelihood now after all.”

“I know, I know,” admitted John, now tucking in to his cereal with gusto, “but some of the members really get to me, they complain at the slightest thing and expect me to be able to put it right just by waving a magic wand or something.”

“We knew what some of them were like before we bought the place,” said Jill, “and anyway most of them are real gems, you just have to know how to deal with the few troublesome ones.”

“It’s ok for you,” said John, “you just flash your eyes at them and they’re eating out of your hands like little puppies. Me, they try to push me as far as they can just for the fun of it!”

Jill sighed. “You’ve never been very good with people, have you Dear, that’s why we split the duties with me on the front desk and you in the office most of the time. But you’re getting better at it, I swear that some of the Ladies’ Aerobics classes actually prefer it when you’re there to welcome them!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said John, now attacking his bacon sandwich while simultaneously trying to pour his second cup of coffee, without much success.

“And multi-tasking was never a strong point either was it,” admonished Jill, prising the coffee jug out of John’s hand to save her tablecloth from another dousing at her clumsy husband’s hands. “Just be careful,” she chided, “you’re like a bull in a china shop!”

After a third cup of coffee, a piece of toast with his favourite Vegemite spread thickly over it and a deep sigh, John rose from the breakfast table.

“Come on kids,” he shouted up the stairs that led from the kitchen of the barn-converted house that a  lottery win had allowed the family to buy outright, “we’re leaving in ten minutes.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He knew that he’d shouted loudly enough to be heard, and knew that demanding a reply from his children would just end up with an argument at the start of a long journey ahead and he didn’t need that, not today. He’d heard enough rumblings from upstairs to know that they were up, at least. “They’ll come when they’re ready and if we’re late they’ll only have themselves to blame,” he told himself, not really believing it.

Today was a big day for Sam and Jessica Smith, their first Gold grade junior tournament, and the results could well dictate the paths of their budding squash careers. Sam, the elder of the twins by a matter of five minutes, was a 5/8 seed in the Boys U15 event with, so the family thought, a good chance of progessing beyond the quarter-final predicted by the seedings.

Jessica was seeded two behind a local girl she’d already beaten three times this year, and was not happy about it. John simply hoped that she’d behave herself on court - unlikely as that was, given his daughter’s behaviour in previous tournaments she’d gone into bearing a grudge, whether it be against the organisers, competitiors, club staff, or quite possibly all of them. It didn’t take much to wind up Jessica Smith.

Sam was the complete opposite - mild mannered, always smiling on and off court, pretty much self-sufficient and no trouble at all. He didn’t have Jessica’s natural talent, academically or in sports, but never seemed to have any problems with the success or attention that his ‘little’ sister gained or demanded. John sometimes wondered if that was a good or bad thing for his son’s future, but more often than not decided that it was good for keeping the peace right now, so he’d consider the ramifications later, if necessary.

BANG, BANG, BANG. The crashing down the wooden stairs told John that at least one of his offspring was on its way downstairs. Jessica, probably, given the noise level.

“Where’s Mum,” asked the thirteen-year-old redhead, dropping her racket bag at the bottom of the stairs and heading for the breakfast table.

“She’s getting ready to go to the club, you know she’s working today so that I can take you to the tournament,” responded John.

“Yeah I know that,” said Jessica, “I just wanted her to fix the zip on one of my skirts.”

“And you didn’t think of asking me to do that last night,” came Jill’s voice from the living room.

“I didn’t know it was broken last night, did I, mum.”

Jill refrained from reminding her daughter that she’d told her countless times to get her kit ready the night before just in case something was broken or missing, and to save some of the inevitably short supply of time in the morning. ‘Not now,’ she thought, not for the first time.

“You’ll just have to wear another skirt Jess, I haven’t got time to do anything about that now. You must have enough surely, there’s only one match today isn’t there?”

“Yes mum, but I just wanted to wear my matching red outfit. Oh well, I’m only playing Fiona Young I should beat her easily so I can wear it tomorrow. You can fix it tonight, can’t you,  pretty please,” Jessica beamed enquiringly at her mother.

“Come on Sam,” John shouted upstairs, hopefully stopping a potential skirt argument in its tracks. “We need to leave in five minutes, maximum.”

Three minutes later Sam appeared, complete with racket bag that had been prepared the night before, a point he thankfully resisted telling his sister. He never took breakfast, preferring to grab the last piece of (non-vegemite) toast or fruit from the table. Today’s leftovers would suffice on the journey to the tournament, and he always took full advantage of whatever food was on offer at the host club.

“You really should have something proper before a tournament,” said Jill, more out of habit than in any expectation of changing her son’s behaviour.

With that, a peck on the cheek for her husband and a “good luck” to the kids, Jill took her car keys from the hook and headed out for her morning session at the helm of the squash club they had bought two months previously with the remaining proceeds of the lottery win that was enough to allow them to give up their jobs, but annoyingly short of being sufficient to take proper early retirement.

John shepherded the children and their assorted bags out into his car and set out for the latest in a long line of junior squash tournaments.

Both were hoping for a quiet and successful day. Neither had any realistic expectations of the former.


Chapter TWO by Mick Joint

Jill pulled into the Vale Squash Club and parked her 1998 red Vauxhall next to her assigned parking spot. She had refused to upgrade her vehicle with the lottery winnings, insisting it was a waste of money to replace a perfectly functioning and well maintained machine. John had pleaded for weeks that they should buy a Jaguar – his dream automobile – but Jill had managed to at least hold that purchase off for a while. If the Squash Club, she compromised, turned out not to be a money pit, they could revisit the idea.

With a sigh of disgust she looked over at her assigned parking spot where the hedges had overgrown so much that not even a Mini could fit anymore and cursed under her breath. Frank, the part time handyman, was supposed to take care of this ‘agricultural’ problem weeks ago. Once again Frank’s promise of cleaning it up had gone unfulfilled. She wondered where that human sloth was lingering. He was scheduled to work every Friday morning and his car wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

Frank was utterly inept. He was also an inheritance. When the Smith’s pulled the trigger on the purchase of the squash club, the one condition they could not revoke was taking on the part time handyman. It was a special deal concocted by one Mr. Avery Wilburforce, the longest serving and most influential board member of the club and, most importantly, the biggest donor as well. It was because of Mr. Wilburforce’s generous funding that the courts stayed open for business through the recent number of financially torturous years. Frank was Jill’s worst nightmare, a complete waste of a pay check, and he was also Mr. Wilburforce’s brother-in-law.

Jill exited her car.

“Good morning, Jill! How are you on this wonderfully cloudy, slightly breezy morning?”

It was Walter. As usual, Walter was standing at the entrance, racquet in hand, before the club was even scheduled to open. Jill adored Walter. Short and somewhat overweight, he was dressed in his usual white socks, white shorts, white collared shirt and white cricket vest and carrying his brown squash bag that was more a luggage piece than sports apparel. With the top of his head as bald and shiny as a bowling ball, he made little effort keeping the horseshoe shaped ring of hair that wrapped around from ear to ear anywhere close to being respectably neat. The same could be said about his shaggy eye-brows that needed a trimming more desperately than her parking spot. He was the ultimate regular customer. Even though she had only known him for two months, he was an easy man to like. Retired, always cheery, not so much humorous as entertaining, he reminded her of a fuzzy muppet character that made you smirk and feel better all at once. He was here half an hour early for his weekly friendly with his best friend Gerry, as he always was, like clockwork.

“Morning, Walter. Doing well, nice to see you. I presume Gerry will be here in a jiffy?”

“As usual”, replied Walter. “The old bugger keeps on coming back for more punishment every week. Guess he loves to lose.”

It wasn’t true of course. In reality, Gerry was slightly the better player and more often than not, would win the weekly bout. Another lovable character, it was easy to mistake the two gentleman for brothers, or, if you didn’t know them well and had a somewhat deviant mind, something more than a friendly relationship. It was therefore considerably baffling, but wholly amusing, that when the two were slugging it out on the court, their competitive natures took over completely and they would be at each other’s throats like foul-mouthed medieval gladiators arguing about every ‘let’ call, pick-up and score.

Jill unlocked the front door and went through the typical rituals of getting the club ready for the day’s business. She expected the next few hours to be slow up until about 4pm when the Friday afternoon round robin kicked off which would then keep all the courts busy for the remainder of the day. Walter hustled off to his usual court number 3 to get a head start on Gerry by stretching and warming up.  

As Jill was tidying up John’s office, she heard Frank meander through the front door. He was twenty minutes late. Again.

“I thought you were going to take care of my parking spot, Frank?” Jill said trying her best not to sound snarky.

“Err, yes, good morning, it’s next on my list, didn’t have time to take care of it on Wednesday you know, my back was playing up a bit, needed to rest it up a bit,” replied Frank quickly who was the worst liar Jill had ever come across. “I’ll get to it right away, but, um, first I need to get back home to, um, pick up my garden trimmer.”

Unbelievable. As much as it infuriated her, the court four heater was a more pressing matter for now and the parking spot would have to be put off for another day. “Leave it,” she snapped. “HeatCo should be here shortly to fix the heater issue on court 4. Just go and set up the ladder. Do you think you can manage that?”

“Sure thing. No problem. Good as done.” Frank sauntered off to the storage room like he was going for a Sunday stroll along the beach. No sense of urgency whatsoever.

Jill needed a strong coffee. Just being in the same room as Frank made her tetchy, he didn’t have to do or say anything to fray her nerves. Which was ironic, because Frank never did or said anything useful anyway.

While she poured herself a large cup, Gerry scurried in with a wave and a jovial “Morning, Jill!” on his way to meet Walter on court 3. Jill smiled. For the next hour or so she would hear the two men yell and scream at each other like 10 year olds only to leave the court afterwards laughing and patting each other on the back, congratulating themselves on another successful match.

Her smile dissipated instantly on seeing Frank wrestling with the ladder on his way to court 4. The fact that it had taken him at least ten minutes just to find the ladder was one thing, but he also managed to bang into every wall and corner while carrying it, leaving a small trail of destruction in his painfully slow wake. Eventually, he was able to manoeuvre the ladder into the correct position, but not before he caused a few pounds worth of repairs along the way. Repairs that he would never fix himself, of course.

All the noise had peaked the interest of Walter and George. They followed Frank onto court 4 to satisfy their curiosity and found the handyman atop of the ladder, screwdriver in hand, and starting to open the back panel of the heater.

“What’s the problem there, Frank?” asked Gerry.

“Heater is still on the fritz,” replied Frank. “Just getting it set-up for HeatCo to look at it. They should be here shortly.”

“Don’t you think you should let one of them do that”? Walter chimed in. “You don’t want to fall.”

“Just getting this here panel off, that’s all”, said Frank as he clumsily dropped the first screw onto the court floor below, landing it just next to Walter’s foot. “Oops! Sorry, Wal...”

The loud creaking sound drowned out the rest of Frank’s sentence. It was followed by an even louder cracking sound as the chains securing the heater to the ceiling gave way, plummeting the sixty pound device to the earth.

Sitting at the reception, sipping her coffee, Jill was startled by the noise causing her to spill the drink over yesterday’s court sheets. “Damn it, Frank” she whispered to herself through clenched teeth. “What have you done now?” She jumped up to check out the handyman’s latest disaster effort and secretly wished she was at the squash tournament with her two kids.

_________________


John secretly wished he was at the Vale Club sitting quietly in his office. Jessica Smith was in fine form today and John’s patience was wearing drastically thin. Jess’ complaining had started the moment they had departed the driveway at home beginning with the tournament venue: the poor lighting, slippery floors, smelly showers, no lounge area to relax in, it went on and on. It seemed that there was not one square foot of space in the entire building that could satisfy her. She had also managed to mention her red dress at least five times stressing that Mom better have it fixed by tomorrow.

Her mood didn’t improve once they were there. It was a national conspiracy that she wasn’t seeded one, and clearly her half of the draw was loaded with all the strong players. She appeared oblivious to the fact that if she played even close to her abilities, she should reach the final without too many problems.

John did his best to calm her down. “Jess,” he said in his most reasoning tone, “you need to focus on your squash. Just think about your upcoming match and not worry about your surroundings. There is nothing you can do about them anyway, so there’s no point protesting. Concentrate on beating Fiona, and then look towards your next match.”

The small piece of logical advice sunk in and Jess quietened down a little.  But not completely. “I’m not worried about Fiona. She’s hopeless,” and with that she stomped off to wait for her court time.

A pang of guilt immediately struck John. For a split second he wished his daughter would lose her first match, just to teach her a lesson. But he dismissed the thought as quickly as it had entered his mind. And anyway, he couldn’t imagine the volcanic eruption that would ensue if she somehow happened to get beaten.

Thirty minutes later, he was wondering if God (or maybe the Devil) had listened to him. As fate would have it, Fiona Young played the game of her life. Perfect length, error-free, the ball-on-a-string squash where one can do no wrong. Fortunately for Jessica – and for John’s wallet - it was for only one game. After going down convincingly in game 1, Jess stormed off the court and slammed down her racquet, which then regrettably bounced up onto the nearby table knocking over 3 cups of tea, 2 muffins, and a small jar of honey that landed in someone’s open squash bag pouring the contents all over and inside their shoes.

Incensed and profoundly embarrassed, John still knew that it would be pointless to approach his daughter in such a state so he had to sit back and let nature take its course. That was after, of course, a thousand apologies to the surrounding spectators, and forking out money to replenish the lost breakfast, Jess’ now broken racquet, and probably a pair of new squash shoes if he could locate the owner of the honey-soaked Hi-Tec’s.

The loss of the game was exactly the slap in the face Jessica Smith didn’t want any part of, but desperately needed. It focused her mind, and using Sam’s racquet for the remainder of the match, she systematically carved up Ms. Young in the last three games dropping only 5 points in the process, 3 of which were miss-hit winners off her opponent’s frame. It was the type of squash game she was capable of displaying. Pity it took a catastrophic tantrum to bring it out.

Relieved at the victory, but still furious with his daughter, John then went to hunt down his other child who was due on court in a few minutes. He was bound to be socializing with his buddies, unaware he was supposed to be preparing himself for his match. Sure enough, Sam was goofing up a storm with 3 others boys, still wearing his street sneakers.

“Sam!” John yelled. “You’re up! Get your shoes on! Court 2! Go!”

Sam snapped to attention, wasted no time changing his footwear, grabbed his racquet from his father who had made sure Jess hadn’t left it lying somewhere, and raced off for his match. No stretching, no warm-up. John rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Good luck!” John called after him.

The match could have been entered into history books as ‘one for the ages’. But for all the wrong reasons. It was the worst ever refereed match since the creation of the sport, John thought, although it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Sam played fairly well, not terrific, but he didn’t really need to. His opponent was a lanky but lethargic looking kid, whose arms and legs didn’t quite work in unison giving him the appearance as if he was constantly stumbling and regaining balance even when he was just walking around the court. Kind of like ‘Lurch’ from the Addams Family but with an unpredictable, alternating limp. He could somehow still swing the racquet and the bizarre looking technique turned out to be somewhat deceptive, even if it was inconsistent. The awful part was, he had the dreadful habit of asking for a ‘let’ at every possible opportunity and the referee – a young girl of about 12 – was terrified every time he did so. Her solution was to automatically award the ‘let’ regardless of the situation, which of course only encouraged the weird youngster to ask for even more, and the match took 5 times longer than what it should have done. Predictably, Sam took the excessive ‘let’ calls in stride and didn’t show any negative emotion about having to win each point multiple times. It was the longest 50 minute 3-0 pasting John had ever agonized through and he was thankful it wasn’t Jess on the court. The 12 year old referee would have never reached 13.

The painful morning of junior tournament squash was almost at an end. John was looking forward to heading home, grabbing some lunch, and then heading out to his squash club to spend the evening in more comfortable surroundings. He decided to call his wife first to tell her the good and bad news. Good that the kids had won, but Jess’ outburst had been mortifying and a suitable punishment for her needed to be discussed. They were both scheduled to play tomorrow – Saturday – two matches each if they kept to the script.

He took his cell phone out of his pocket. As usual it was turned off. It was the first cell phone he had owned, a luxury purchase he and Jill had afforded themselves with their lottery winnings. Not so technologically minded, John wasn’t sure he liked the gadget. He wasn’t patient with learning all the features, had no idea how to send a text, constantly struggled to remember how to retrieve his voice- mails, and regularly forgot to charge it. Today, he was in luck, the battery hadn’t yet been completely drained.

As the screen came to life, he was surprised, if not a little dismayed, at the flashing message that popped up instantaneously reporting he had 12 voice mails and 4 text messages. All from the same number. The squash club’s. “This can’t be good,” he muttered.

Ignoring the messages, he called Jill.

The phone rang only once before his out-of-breath wife picked up the call. “Vale Squash Club,” she blurted out.

“Jill, its John. What’s going on?”

“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve tried to call you! Damn it, John! What’s the point of having a cell phone if you never have it turned on?!” Jill was half-screaming, half-wheezing, clearly not thinking straight.

The strangely familiar ‘what-have-I-done-now’ feeling swept over John. “What have I done, now?” he asked.

“It’s not you, it’s Walter.”

“Walter?” John repeated. “What, Gerry finally had enough and killed the old bastard?!”

“No,” answered Jill coldly. “Frank did.”


Chapter THREE by Aubrey Waddy

“For Pete’s sake, Jill,” John said. “That’s not funny. What are you trying to tell me?”

 “I mean,” Jill spelt it out coldly down the phone, “there’s been an accident. Frank was up a ladder on Court Four and, and…”

Jill usually controlled her emotions but here there was a catch in her voice. The pause grew uncomfortably long. “Come on, Jill. Tell me what happened.”

It came out in a rush. “And the heater came down off the ceiling. It landed on Walter. Hit him on his shoulder. He might have been all right but it knocked him against the back wall and he hit his head. At first we thought he was just knocked out. His foot was twitching. But his eyes,” her voice trailed away again. “His eyes were wide open, staring. They stayed wide open the whole time, it was horrible.”

“How is he now? You’ve called an ambulance?”

“For Christ’s sake, John, you never listen? Of course we called. 999. Blue lights, the full performance, nenaw nenaw, two paramedics, an hour ago, more. They tried and tried to bring him back. They worked on him, I don’t know, twenty, thirty minutes. In the end they had to give up. He’s dead, John. We’ve got to accept it. Walter’s dead. They’ve taken him away, his body that is. On a stretcher. The police will be here soon. Please come back.”

Shit, shit, shit! Walter dead? It didn’t seem possible. And what about the club? Not that he should be bothering about the club right now. What about Walter’s daughter, as well? His guilty secret. It would be awkward having Kristin around and having to pretend they didn’t know each other. TGI Friday? No chance now, John thought. Quite the opposite. I wish it weren’t Friday at all.

“Okay,” he said, “stay calm. The kids both won, by the way. I’ll round them up and we’re on our way. Oh, and Jill, before you do anything else, call Nick, as soon as you can. We need some good advice on this.”

Nick Gaultier was the solicitor the Smiths had used during the protracted negotiations with the Vale board to buy the club.

“I already have. Luckily he picked up straight away,” she added resentfully.

“Don’t say anything till Nick gets there. I’m off to find Jess and Sam. I’m leaving now.”

John groaned as he went in search of his kids. Not much had gone right since that darned lottery win. And now this. Complications with Kristin, too. What more could go wrong? He shuddered to think.

John found Sam in the men’s locker room. “Come on, Sam. We’ve got to be leaving. Right now. Shift yourself! Make sure you collect all your kit, too. Especially that racquet.”

“Oh Dad. Do we have to go now? Can’t we watch some of the under nineteens? Jonathon Nicol’s playing at two o’clock.”

“No. There’s a problem back at the club. Do you know where Jessica is?”

“Haven’t seen her. The girls are mostly hanging round in the locker room. I’ll text her.”

“No, call her.”

“I can’t. I don’t have any minutes. You call her, Dad. You can use your new cell. I’ll text her anyway.”

“What’s her number?”

“Hold on.” In no time flat Sam sent the text and then read out Jessica’s number. John tentatively prodded it into his old-style brick and put the cell to his ear. “Ah,” he said with pride, as if just he’d succeeded in assembling a flat pack state of the art supersonic Eurofighter Typhoon Air Superiority Combat Jet worth 150 million quid. “It’s ringing.”

Sam looked at his father expectantly but after a few seconds John shrugged, “Afraid it’s gone through to voicemail. We’ll have to find her.”

Outside the locker rooms they bumped into one of Jessica’s rivals in the under fifteens, the fifth seed Jenny Waters.

“Hi Jen,” John said. “Have you seen Jessica anywhere?”

“No, she’s not in the locker room, I can tell you that. I thought I saw her headed towards Reception. But that was half an hour ago. She could be in the gallery.”

“Thanks. If you see her, tell her we’re looking for her.

“Come on, Sam. We’ll go that way.”

“Wait, Mr Smith,” Jenny said. “I was going to hand it in. Here, Jess left the cover for her cell in the locker room. I’m sure it’s hers. No one else has got one of these.”

Jenny unzipped a pocket on her huge sports bag and extracted Jessica’s second most prized possession, a lurid pink and green cover for the latest Samsung Galaxy smart phone. She’d bought the Galaxy, ranked her number one most prized possession, with money from her grandparents a month previously, and the ridiculously expensive cover had arrived a week later with savings from her birthday.

Since then the phone had taken over Jessica’s life. Both Jill and John had remarked on the time she was spending with it. ‘It’s only Facebook, Mom,’ she had told Jill during a recent argument about  school work. ‘I need to know how everyone’s getting on with their project. And anyways, I’ve been making new friends.’

“That’s strange,” Sam said. “She never takes her cell out of the cover.”

John frowned and turned to Jenny. “Thanks again, Jen. She’ll be around somewhere. We’ll find her.” Then to Sam: “We’ll ask at the front desk. They may have seen her.”

The manager of the busy Queenstown Squash and Racketball Club, Cameron Hiscoe, was on duty with his daughter, Donna. “You haven’t seen Jessica anywhere, have you?” John asked him. “We need to be leaving but we don’t know where she is.”

“Jessica?” Cameron said. “I’m not sure that I know a Jessica. There’s so many of them here today.”

“I know her,” Donna said. “She’s the redhead, isn’t she? With a black scrunchie?”

“That’s right, she’s thirteen, but tall.”

“I did see her here. It was a good while ago though. She was still in her squash kit. I noticed because she went out the front entrance and I thought she’d be cold out there. Without a trackie and all.”

“That’s not like Jess,” John said. “She hates the cold. Has she come back in?”

“Not that I’ve seen. She went off to the left, towards the car park.”

John scratched his head. “Sam, you go upstairs and check the galleries. I’ll see if she’s still outside. But listen, don’t go missing yourself.”

In normal mode Sam would be lost in no time, goofing around as always with his friends. “Meet me back here in five minutes,” John said, “after I’ve had a look outside.”

“Sure thing, Dad.”

_________

 
Jill had put up a large board at the front of the club saying, without explanation, ‘CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE’. She had considered telling Frank to do it, but she wanted the job to be actually done, and Frank was even less likely than usual to achieve anything constructive. Instead, when she came back in, Jill told him to go home.

Gerry intervened immediately. “No, you better stay until the police have come. They’ll want to take statements from everyone.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Frank complained for the umpteenth time. “I was only trying to help, before HeatCo came. You should have told me not to use the ladder. It’s just not safe.”

And for the umpteenth time Jill did her best to control her irritation. This time, however, being blamed for Frank’s zero competence was simply too much.

“Said what?” she exploded. “For pity’s sake, Frank, shut the something up! If I’d had my way you wouldn’t have been anywhere near this club, today or any other day, let alone these courts and not in a million years on even the bottom rung of any flaming ladder. In your hands a screwdriver becomes a major public health hazard. Why don’t you go off and… and… do some odd jobs, “she sneered, “at Grandpa Wilburforce’s? An opportunity to wreck his house rather than my squash club.”

She looked at him fiercely. “See who you can kill there!”

“Hey, hey,” Gerry said. He was still in his quaint squash kit and now that he’d recovered from the initial shock, his closest friend killed in the freak accident not a yard away from him, it was he who had taken charge. It had been his suggestion for Jill to contact their lawyer, immediately after she had made the 999 call. With his background in corporate affairs, Gerry was used to thinking strategically, and a sound strategy would be needed now. He wanted to see all the obvious bases covered.

And one thing was definite, the obvious hostility between Jill and Frank was not going to do any of them any good when the police arrived. So Gerry said, “We’re all a bit stressed. Let’s get a coffee in the bar.”

“I’m not taking anything with that loser,” Jill said sharply.

“Feeling’s mutual,” Frank replied, staring at his feet. “I’m out of this dump.”

“Don’t be a fool, Frank,” Gerry said gently. “You know the fuzz will want to talk to you.”

Ignoring this, Frank moved, in a cross between a slouch and a stomp, away from the court corridor where they were standing. Gerry would have laughed, but it wasn’t a day for laughing.

“Come on, Jill. We’ll go and sit down till the police get here.”

“I can’t believe that Walter’s gone,” Gerry said when Jill had made them each a coffee and they were seated in the large bar area. “He only retired last year.”

He wiped his hand across his face, as if trying to erase the horrifying images of the morning. “One consolation, I guess. He has, had I mean, never got over Madeline.“ His voice fell, and he paused. No one knew it, but Madeline had been his passion too. People had joked about how close he and Walter had been. Little did they know that he’d be a whole lot closer with Walter’s wife.

“That darned breast cancer,” he went on. “Two years it is and he’s always talking about her.” He corrected himself. “Was always talking about her.

“Dammit, oh dammit, I forgot. I’ll have to call his daughter. Kristin; do you know Kristin? She’s quite a girl. She lives an hour away, in Pennington.”

“Kristin? No. I didn’t know Walter had a daughter. I guess I didn’t know him so well. He was just,” a tear ran down her face, “just so cheerful.”

Gerry sighed. “What a guy. Life’s not going to be the same.”

Jill grimaced. “Not for any of us.”

Gerry took a grip. “Yup. But let’s think about today. We need to cover all the bases.” He started to check off on his fingers. We’ve called the paramedics. We’ve called the cops. We’ve called John.”

“Nine times,” Jill said, “nine times at least.” She was still furious with John, partly because of the time it had taken him to pick up, partly because he had got lucky in avoiding the morning’s drama, and partly because he was, well, just because he was him, and he always got away with it.

“And we’ve called Nick. Tell you what. You’d better give your insurers a call, too. Sooner rather than later.”

 “You’re right. I suppose this is going to be expensive. I’ll call them from the office.” Jill was feeling better with Gerry’s calm approach. “You see if you can reach Walter’s daughter. Is there any other next of kin, by the way? And I’ll check the insurance.”

For a moment Jill sat while Gerry fiddled around in his ancient brown bag, seeking his cell phone. Then she got up and headed for John’s office. With no one else in the bar, Gerry was able to openly scrutinise her rounded ass in her customary tight jeans. No matter what, Gerry thought, with poor Madeline gone but always in his thoughts, Walter’s accident scarcely two hours earlier, a great ass was still the ass of trumps. And in his opinion, Jill’s was right up there. He sighed. Yes he could sneakily scru-tinise her. He did it all the time. Much better, so much better as he so often wished, would be to confine the action to the first syllable. He wished he could screw her. Forget about the tin eyes, he joked bitterly to himself. It had been so long.

In the tiny office Jill reckoned she knew where the insurance correspondence should be, but insurance was John’s business, and filing was never his strong point. Indeed, for all she basically loved the great lunk, sometimes she wondered whether any of his points would be classified by a neutral observer as strong. There were plenty of the other sort, but maybe she was being unfair. Indeed this time, there in a file labelled ‘Premier Insurance’, was the relevant collection of papers. She felt guilty about her doubts. It was just that you couldn’t rely on John.

As Jill leafed through the schedules and certificates and policies, a nagging thought started to trouble her. She remembered overhearing John discussing Premier with Nick Gaultier. Premier had offered them too good a deal to turn down, too good on the structure and contents insurance, that was. Nick hadn’t been happy with some aspect of the deal though. Jill racked her brains but she couldn’t remember anything more. She found Premier’s claims number on one of the documents, called it and after prodding through several inhumanly spoken options, and several minutes of listening to the tinny sound of a rock band that she was continually yelling at Sam to turn down in his bedroom, she got through to a flesh and blood voice.

“Yes, good morning Mrs Smith.” Was it still morning? Jill said sarcastically that she would be positively thrilled if a recording of their conversation was used for Premier’s training purposes, but the woman kept her cool and efficiently led her through the details of the accident.

Job done, Jill thought as she put the phone down. John could pick up the no doubt extensive ramifications later. Jill really wanted him back at the club. There were so many things to take care of, and even when he was bumbling around in his own time-and-motion disaster zone, John had a way of making her less tense.

They’d have to dump the kids at home, but these days that wasn’t a problem.

 _________

 
As John re-entered the Queenstown club from the car park Sam was making his way down the stairs with Kasey Urquhart, the first seed in Jessica’s competition, someone they knew well from the local squash circuit. Kasey was a short, powerful girl who wore unusual red glasses and a matching red eye shield on court. She was still in her squash kit, white with red piping, but she had applied some lipstick, the same colour as her glasses. This made her look older, certainly older than Jess. Kasey was laughing at something Sam had said.

“Hey, Sam,” John said. “Is she up there?”

“Is who up there?”

“For heaven’s sake. Is Jess up there?”

“Oh, of course, Jess. No, she’s not in the gallery.”

“Are you looking for Jess, Mr Smith?” Kasey asked. “She told me she was meeting a friend.”

“Oh. Do you know who?”

“She wouldn’t say. She was kinda coy. I thought she might have found a boyfriend.” She giggled at Sam. “You know what Jess is like. She’s got more than five hundred friends now in Facebook. I bet some of them are real hot. One of them is bound to be special.”

John tried not to show he was shocked. His son Sam, Jessica’s twin, still sometimes reminded him of the little boy he had only just left behind. He was now tall for his age and gangling, but most of the time definitely a boy and not a spotty teenager. Kasey herself was another one on either side of the growing up cusp. For all her drilled professionalism on a squash court, and her increasing sophistication, she could be a child when things weren’t going her way. Which frequently happened against Jess. And what about their Jess? Hardly into her teens, he thought. Was she already having assignments with boyfriends? Had her life moved into today’s teen arena, where apparently you were judged merely on how hot you were? Hot! Inwardly John shuddered. What did she do with these alleged boyfriends, anyway? And what did they do with her?

“Could you make another check for us in the locker room, Kasey? Jess might be back there now.”

“Sure, Mr Smith.”

They followed Kasey to the corridor that led to the locker rooms. After she’d entered the girls’ John told Sam to go and collect his kit. “Leave it in the car. Here, take the keys.”

Moments later Kasey re-emerged. “No sign of her there, Mr Smith. Have you tried calling her?”

“Yes. It just goes through to voice mail.”

“That’s strange. She worships that Galaxy. Now I’m like, why doesn’t she have it with her?”

They were interrupted by Sam bursting back into the corridor. “Dad, Dad, look at this.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Jess’s Galaxy. Look, the screen’s smashed.”

Now John was alarmed. “Show me. Are you sure it’s hers?”

Sam handed the Galaxy to his father while a frowning Kasey looked on. “It must be hers,” she said. “There’s lots of iPhones, and older Samsungs, but no one has the s3 yet. Only Jess.”

“Where did you find it?” John demanded.

“It was lying in the dirt beside the car.” Sam looked as if he was going to cry and held up something in his other hand.

“And I think… I think this is Jess’s purse.”

_________

 
“Hello Nick.” Jill was greeting the lawyer at the entrance to the club. “It’s so good of you to come. Such short notice.”

Nick Gaultier smiled. “No problem. This sounds like a bad one.” He grimaced. “Is the body still here? Have you spoken to the police yet?”

“No to the first. I insisted the paramedics take poor Walter away. They said it should be okay. No suspicious circumstances. As for the police, they just called to say they’re on their way. There was an incident in town, apparently, which has delayed them.”

Nick was a college friend of John’s, tall, mid thirties with an aura of power that had already attracted a wide client base. More women than men, Jill suspected. John and he had been members of the university squash team, and he was still fit and still single. He was wearing his customary sober three piece suit, customary flamboyant silk tie and expensive sneakers. ‘Shoes maketh the man,’ Jill quoted to herself. I wouldn’t mind making the man myself.

She introduced Nick to Gerry, who was even now still in his squash kit. He had intended to shower back home, as he usually did, just round the corner from the club.

“Hi,” Nick said. “Didn’t we meet at that Rotarian party last fall?”

“That’s where it was. I thought I recognised you. You were giving a talk on commercial building insurance, if I recall. If that sounds dull, it wasn’t. I’d never believed something could be so complicated.”

“That’s right. It can be difficult. It provides lawyers like me with a ton of business.”

He turned to Jill. “Just like here, I recall. Complicated, wasn’t it? The insurance, I mean. I didn’t want you to take on Premier’s public liability offering, if I remember the small print. The rest of it was solid. Who did we go for in the end for public liability?”

“I don’t know. John took care of that. I knew there had been some complication.”

“You’re right, it’s coming back to me too. I went on holiday just when you were completing the deal. That darned Avery Wilburforce, pardon my English, but what an asshole. Everything was so delayed. Tell you what, Jill. You should speak to Premier, and whoever the other people are. They’re going to be taking a big interest in this one.”

“I’ve already called Premier. They’ll talk to John and fix for someone to come out. I don’t know who’s got our public liability. I’ll go and get the file.”

“And I think I’ll head home for a shower,” Gerry said. “Won’t be more than fifteen minutes.”

Moments later Jill returned with the insurance file, handed it to Nick and went to make him a cup of coffee. Nick was frowning when she put the coffee down in front of him.

He looked up at her. “This doesn’t look so good, Jill. I’ll have to talk to John.”

“What do you mean? What’s the matter?”

“Well, I can hardly believe this. If all your insurance documents are here, in this file, it looks as though you don’t actually have public liability cover. There’s several proposals, but nothing’s been followed through.”

“But we’re covered for all the damage, aren’t we?”

“That’s not what’s worrying me. That’s small anyway, a few thousand pounds at most. The public liability though, depending on this Walter. Who was he, by the way?”

“Walter Selby.”

“Depending on Walter’s estate, and the attitude they take,” Nick was looking directly at Jill, “this could run into millions.”

“You mean we could be sued? Millions of quid?”

“I’m afraid so. And unless John did something about it, finalised one of these proposals, and we were very specific on this point, I remember the correspondence, you two could be personally liable.”

Jill’s hands went to her face. “But we don’t have that sort of money,” she gasped. “Millions of pounds, that’s crazy money.

“No way!”


Chapter FOUR by Will Gens

John should have seen signs of trouble, especially with Jessica. And Jill. His love, his anchor, he always believed that they were destined for one another. If ever opposites attract, they were opposites. She was practical, organized, methodical. He was a bit of a dreamer, an "idea" man as he liked to call himself. He thought Jill loved him for that and thought he was and would always be the center of her universe, as she was his.

Jessica had gone missing now for 8 months, and there was little or no trace of her after that fateful day when it seemed the world, their world turned upside down on a screw. John, his life fallen apart, had begun to sense the bottom, but what he feared most was that the pit he had fallen into was bottomless, and maybe he was indeed in hell.

When the police were notified about Jessica's disappearance and they began retracing her steps, Mrs. Peabody, the girl's locker room attendant, told them that she saw Jessica come through the front entrance of the club and go past her in a rush to her locker, fiddling furiously with the combination and rummaging through it frantically before she found what she wanted and settled into one of the big oversized lounge chairs. Noting that Jessica had been kicking her feet as they rested over the arms of the chair, Mrs. Peabody told the police, “I thought she was so young and beautiful and carefree, but her posture on the chair was a bit rude, so I told her to please sit properly in the chair.”

Mrs. Peabody was a grandmother and matriarch of the Peabody clan, a portly matronly woman with the shock of grey hair who was once county squash champion. You'd never know it since, as a grandmother, she never stepped on court (60 lbs heavier than her playing days) but loved to be around the game and helped her grandson run his squash tournaments. She kept a keen eye on the manager of the club, Cameron Hiscoe, and his daughter, Donna. Mrs. Peabody didn't like Donna at all, viewing her as “a bit loosy-goosy and always with these unsavory types, bad boy types hanging around the club.” She remembered that “the Jessica girl sort of rolled her eyes but then said, ‘Sorry, Ma’am,  just waiting for my dad and brother.'” Mrs. Peabody said, “It's okay, darling, I have to watch young-un’s like you who have all that nervous energy taking it out on our poor furniture."

"The girl smiled, she found my reasoning a bit humorous.” Mrs. Peabody told the police that she asked the girl a little later, "Wouldn't it be better, darling, if you waited near the front desk so your dad could see you?" She added, "The girl was sitting there fiddling with her cell phone, I guess she was answering texts or something."

Mrs. Peabody had gone about her business of straightening up the locker room, bringing in fresh towels, talking to some of the members and quieting some of the younger girls down if they became too loud and boisterous. She told the police that she last remembered the girl on her cell talking in a funny manner, bright red, like she was blushing...she thought, "Love is nice." And that was the last anyone saw of Jessica. The police re-interviewed the manager and his daughter, who had first seen Jessica leave but didn't notice her coming back. They never saw her leave again. "We're sure, absolutely sure, because we would have noticed her," Cameron Hiscoe insisted.

John remembered later when he spoke to the police that in the craziness of the Walter accident, he told Jessica that he'd meet her out at the front desk and to wait for him and Sam, after which he took the call from Jill and totally forgot about Jessica. In those ten minutes that he was on the phone with Jill, Jessica had received a call on her cell that police later traced to a disposable cell phone. There were also numerous text messages from another phone, which also was disposable.

The police were unable to garner any leads from either of the two phones. It was their theory as they checked her phone records and deciphered her laptop, which police confiscated later as evidence when they came and went through Jessica's room, that she had met someone on Facebook, developed a bit of a flirtation, and had very possibly become the victim of Internet Grooming, a crime that only in recent years had surfaced as a result of the internet. Severe penalties had been imposed against men who developed email, text, or phone relationships with under-age girls. Often the "groomers" were middle-aged men, many married and with families. In extreme cases, these relationships had led to rape and, on rare occasions, disappearance.

Jessica's case troubled the police because it had some of the earmarks of another disappearance of a teenage girl in Manchester about a year earlier. A potential serial "groomer" might have taken it to the next level, posing as a teenage boy, cool and captivating, perfectly normal behavior for someone of that station. But when he saw some of the text and Facebook messages on Jessica’s phone, John became nauseated at the thought that  a 45-year-old man might be behind these texts, someone wanting to hurt these girls.

He and Jill seemed to blame each other. Jill grew to hate John and saw his descent into his private hell as pathetic. She was a fighter. Three weeks after the police told them that there were no leads but that they believed that her disappearance  fit the M.O. of an internet groomer --- funny how he himself had  used that Latin-phrase acronym so often ("Hey that's his M. O.,” “Hey, typical of his M. O.,” “Jessica, is that what your M. O. is?”) --- John told his wife, "Jill! You should have been more diligent about her Facebook crap, damn it, why weren't you monitoring her?"

"John,” she  shot back, "if you hadn't spent so much time at that club maybe I would have had time. God only knows what you were doing! Don't put this on me, you bastard!" John was stunned, his wife never had spoken to him that way. And the look in her eyes, the hatred, utter hatred for him. He realized she blamed him, not just for Jessica, but for everything, losing the club and house and everything they had was just part of it. Loss of possessions they could have dealt with but not your own child, your daughter, your son's sister, your parents’ grand-daughter.

Walter's daughter, Kristin, surprised him the most. At first she was very accommodating and sympathetic because of the accident and how it coincided with the tragedy of Jessica disappearing. But then something happened, he wasn't quite sure, Kristin changed. While they seemed at first a bit awkward around each other because of their past history, John felt ashamed how he let himself down and became involved with Kristin while he was married to Jill. Kristin hired a really shark lawyer and basically was taking John and Jill for everything they had. John had never taken out the public liability policy, he just let it slip like he did so many other things. This slip cost them dearly, and he blamed himself. "The world turns on a dime, nah, on a screw,"...he poured another drink and laughed sarcastically to himself. "Yeah, a screw, in more ways than one."

In the months since the accident and Jessica's disappearance, John lost his business, his house, his daughter and finally Jill. How ironic, he thought, sinking further into his morose state, how no matter what happens, people will always take advantage of you no matter how far down you are; they will try and kick you even further down.

Gerry Stanhope, Walter's friend and squash partner , who helped Jill pull herself together and call the lawyer and police moments after the accident, was very  supportive, offering help with business issues where the club was concerned.  Gerry never ceased to remind John, "My friend you screwed up, what can I say, there's nothing we can do but try and make sure you don't end up behind bars. Kristin for some reason is out for blood, your blood, my friend." Some friend, John thought, while Gerry was looking out for his well-being, he was screwing Jill. "Screwed, screwing, screwed...no two ways about it." He was drinking heavily now. It wasn't beyond his scope to begin thinking about ending his life. "Dramatic,” he thought, "but effective.” And then he thought of his son, what would Sam do, Sam needed him, he had to hang in there for Sam, only for Sam....he then put his head down on the kitchen table and passed out.

--------------------------------------------------

He awoke as he heard the door shut. He was in a fog, his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He tried to gather his thoughts, his dreams -- he looked out the kitchen window and saw Sam headed off to the school bus stop, he didn't look back. John wanted his son to look back and smile, the wonderful perfect smile that cost him 8,000 pounds. But Sam walked down the street, turned the corner and was out of sight. There on the counter was a half-finished bowl of cereal, the milk left out, "typical Sam.”

John didn't know what hurt more, his head from all the drink or his heart. The dreams were bad, he tried not to remember them, but he knew they were bad; "Why couldn't Sam have turned around, why couldn't I have seen his smile?" Almost mechanically, John went into the bathroom and rummaged through the medicine cabinet. There he found his prescription of Mobic, a strong anti-inflammatory for his Achilles tendinitis last year. He never used it, but kept it just in case. He looked at the expiration date, still valid. Expires in 2 months, "Two months," he thought, "that is like an eternity."

He took a pee, stood there looking...he still felt groggy from the booze...everything he was doing would be for the last time. "How many pees in this lifetime have I taken, I can't even fucking calculate, something I should have done, too late now, this will be my last one..." He finished off and went into the kitchen, took the remainder of Scotch and fumbled with the prescription bottle before it popped open. He wanted to tell Sam something, how proud he was, how sorry, how he knew Sam would be a great squash player and a great father someday, a son always surpasses his father, "Isn't that the law of nature?  I can't even think of you, Jessica, my sweet girl, my princess," he said in a whisper. And that familiar phrase came back into his head, "The world turns on a dime, nah, on a screw," he laughed a bit to himself. He took a handful of the Mobic, counted 25 -- "This ought to do it,” he said, and opened the bottle of Scotch.

The phone rang, more shrill-sounding in his head than a million dying chickens.



Chapter FIVE by Tracy J. Gates

MEH-rrrrrrrr . . .  MEH-rrrrrrrr……

“You’ve got to be kidding me….”

The girl rolled over, stuck a tanned arm out from five hundred count Egyptian cotton sheets, and slapped her palm down on the teakwood night table.

Nothing. She slapped it down to the left. To the right. This time it struck a slim silver square. Her fingers closed around it and carried it up to her squinting eyes.

The bleating came again.

“What the . . .” She punched some buttons with her thumb, and suddenly Rihanna was singing at the top of her lungs in full Bose surround sound, the volume still at the level of her impromptu late night dance party. Now, instead of making her hips and hair sway, it caused her head to jerk back in a useless attempt to escape, knocking it into the headboard.

MEH-rrrrrrrr . . .  MEH-RRRRRRRRRRRR

“What a bad little girl I am” sang Rihanna. “I got a problem, bad, bad…”

“Shhhhh—ugar, sugarrrrrrrrr,” growled the girl, involuntarily mimicking her mother, when she was going for a winner, but putting the ball into the tin instead. Tears sprang to her eyes. She took a corner of the sheet and wiped them away. They were from the shock of physical pain, she decided, because surely she didn’t miss her ridiculous mother. She didn’t have time to think about it, though. Over another round of something that sounded like seagulls being strangled and Rihanna squealing “Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad,” there was now a loud knocking on her door.

“Jesss? Are you there? Are you okay??”

Jessica thought about this, after giving the affirmative to Nikki on both counts , figuring out how to kill Rihanna with the press of the right button, and using her deductive skills to solve the mystery of the obnoxious wake-up call; she couldn’t see a thing out her window. Fog.

She was fine, she thought, better than fine, as she opened the doors to her closet. It wasn’t a walk-in like Nikki’s mum had, but then again Jess didn’t have fifteen years worth of clothes—or however long it had been since Mrs. Ivanov had been married to Nikki’s dad. She only had—was it already eight months?—worth of Juicy Couture, True Religion, Miss Sixty, to name a few. Some were hand-me-overs from Nikki, but many were gifts from Mrs. Ivanov who clearly liked to shop and did so every place they stopped. Lacy sun-dresses from the French Riviera. Embroidered and hand-printed tops from Africa. Bikinis from Bermuda.

“You have such lovely figure,” Mrs. Ivanov would say in her heavily accented English. I should send Nikki to orphanage!” And then she would laugh in her half sexy, half hoarse from too many Newports voice.

“Orphanage,” Jessica muttered to herself, sweeping the hangers of teen couture to one side. She could wear a beaded bikini to breakfast, but her squash lesson was mid-morning. “I still can’t believe she bought that….” Mrs. Ivanov wasn’t the brightest bulb in Bergdorf’s.

The other half of the closet contained all of her squash attire. Harrow, Adidas, Nike, Prince, Asics . . . Mrs. Ivanov wasn’t loyal to one brand; it was mostly which color caught her eye. And who had worn it. Recently, she’d been ordering whatever dress Kasey Brown had worn, since she saw her beat Nicol David in a black and silver number. “What amazing arms,’ Jessica overheard her say, as she and Nikki watched a video of the match in the salon.

Jessica quickly flipped by a bunch of coordinated outfits—turquoise, berry pink, sunset orange, and then her hand dropped. Fire engine red. It couldn’t be… She looked more closely. The skirt had pleats in the front and—she pushed the hanger over to see the back—a zipper stuck half way down (or up, depending on your degree of optimism) on the back. How had it gotten there? She hadn’t remembered seeing it . . . but had it always been there?  No, she was sure not. The last time she’d seen the vintage tennis skirt (well, her mum’s from when she was a girl) was when she’d stuffed it into her squash bag that final morning at home. But she hadn’t been wearing it when she had made that dash to the limo. Nikki had told her to leave everything; it would look more like a kidnapping. That had been easy; she didn’t have anything she really liked. Anything except her beautiful new Galaxy 3s phone, but Nikki’s brother Alexi had grabbed it when they were driving away. “You want to be found, princess?” he said, tossing both her phone and his cigarette out the window.

“Only by you,” she had thought to herself. He was cute, in a young Peter Nicol kind of way—which was still too old for her; he was Nikki’s half brother, from her father’s first—or was it second?—marriage. Then again, she could probably beat him on the court.

The court. She put the skirt to the back of her mind; maybe she had brought it after all. She needed to get going if she was going to eat and get on the court by mid-morning. Aman scolded them in Arabic if they waltzed on even a few minutes late. She grabbed a black skirt, a tournament t-shirt with Big Apple Open emblazoned on the front, and a pair of Asics and closed the door.

André opened the door to the dining room. “Good morning, miss.”
“Morning, André.”

“No breakfast on the deck this morning?”

She shook her head. “It’s foggy. I heard the horn.”

“Ah,” the mustachioed maitre d' nodded. “That accounts for Alexi’s presence.”
Jessica quickly glanced around the room. She figured Nikki might be there, but the rest of the family usually ate in their rooms, on their private decks, or in the case of Mr. Ivanov, in his office. She rarely saw the man. But there was Alexi, sitting in once of leather banquettes, eating eggs and a pile of bacon.  She’d gotten over her schoolgirl crush on the guy. Now he just made her nervous. Especially alone.

“Oh. Right.” She began backing up. “Maybe I’ll see if Nikki’s up . . .”

Too late. Alexi had seen her and was waving her over.

“What did you do to your forehead, Princess?” he asked her when she got to his table.

She put her fingers to it and winced. There was a bump now from the headboard. The chorus “bad, bad, bad, bad, bad” started pounding again in her head.
“Bad.” she mumbled. “Bump.”

“I’d say,” he agreed, raising his eyebrows at her. He scooted over on the banquette. “Come sit down.”

“I should see if Nikki’s up…” she began, but Alexi quickly interrupted.

“She’s asleep. Here,” he insisted, pulling her firmly over to his side so that she half sat, half fell onto the leather cushions.

“The usual, Miss?” André had followed her over.

Jess nodded thankfully. “Yes, please, André. Weeta….”

“You should have eggs,” Alexi interrupted. “Protein. Don’t you have a lesson later?”

Jess looked down at her skirt. “Yes, but....”

“Bring her some eggs, André,” Alexi ordered. “Over easy.” He turned back to her and smiled.

Within moments, André was back with her order. Her usual order. Two pieces of weetabix with sliced banana on top. And a pitcher of cold milk. “Your first course, Miss?”

Jessica smiled for the first time that morning. She could always count on André.
Alexi frowned. “Forget the eggs, André. I’ll take a refill on my espresso, but then you can go.” He paused. “Jessica is going to give me some top-secret tips for my squash game.”

“Really??” The voice came from the door to the hall and not the kitchen. Nikolina was leaning on the frame. “Jess only gives her secret tips to me, future Junior nomer adin.”

“She should give you her secret diet tips, too,” Alexi shot back. His half sister was seemingly his opposite, short and dark to his tall and fair. But their tongues were both sharp.

“The only tips you need are how to stop mooching off Papa.” Nikki flounced her short self into a seat. “Ouch. Oooch. Oh, my head hurrrrrrts.”

Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, thought Jess, lightly rubbing her own.

Alexi sneered. “And you’ve got to stop pinching your mama’s wodka.”

Nikki stuck out her sharp tongue. Alexi rolled his eyes. Jessica quickly finished her weetabix and stood up. “Um. I have to get to my lesson?”

Nikki lay her head down on the mahogany table and closed her eyes. “Tell Aman that I don’t feel well; we can play our practice match tomorrow.”

Alexi shot his eyes from his half sister to Jessica. “I’ll play with you, Princess. After your lesson.”

Jessica protested. “Oh, you don’t want to play with me….”

Alexi slipped something small out from under his napkin. “Oh, I do.” He tapped the slim silver rectangle. “And then we must talk.”

Nikki yawned and put her arms over her head. Jessica stared. Alexi grinned.
“Da?”

Once again, Jessica nodded.

Aman wasn’t too happy when she told him Nikki’s message.

“That girl is la-zee,” he muttered. “You can’t buy experience. You can’t borrow eet, “ he said, shaking his head.

“Oh, Aman, Nikki’s gotten better,” she protested.

“Yes. She has,” Aman agreed in his knowing way. “But you. You have gotten many, many times better.” He smiled at her. “And nicer, too.”

Jessica blushed. But she did feel nicer. Or, well, she liked being nicer. When she first got to this grand place that the Ivanov family called home, she couldn’t believe how nice every thing was. How Nikki had the nicest clothes and the nicest squash stuff and all the nicest, newest electronic everything. She hadn’t felt bad at all that she had told them she was an orphan. In fact, she kind of was one; since her parents bought the squash club, they were never home. It opened before she got up in the morning and closed after she went to bed. She checked her watch; they were probably there right now.”

“Your parents would be proud of you,” Aman continued.

“They were,” Jess agreed, and then realized what she’d just said. “I mean, I hope they would be. Should I, um, do some suicides to warm up?” she quickly asked.

“That’s my girl,” Aman beamed.

Jessica opened the door of the all-glass court and sprinted to the front wall.

She couldn’t hear, but on the other side of the one-way glass, Alexi repeated Aman’s words.

“No, that’s my girl.”

Jessica was drenched and her legs were wobbly by the time Aman was done with her. He usually gave her and Nikki a break half way through, but with Nikki not there whining about dying for water and rest, he just kept feeding ball after ball and asking for rails, drops, volleys, boasts, volley-drops until she was about to drop herself.

“We’ll work on your stamina next time,” Aman said, handing her a towel and a bottle of water. “But they should be sending you to the championships, not Nikolina.”

Now that wasn’t going to happen, Jessica thought as she chugged down the drink. Funny how a split-second decision had made her both a better player and impossible for her to compete. But she was too tired to really think about it. So that’s why she was still slumped on the sofa outside the court when Alexi walked in as soon as Aman left.

“Ready to play? Or to talk?” he asked, waving her racquet with one hand and a phone in the other.

Jessica looked up at him. The good part about running around for hours was that while her body was down, her endorphins were up. Nikki was right, Alexi was a bozo not worth worrying about.

She waved two empty hands, palms up. “Whatever.”

“So do you want to call your father before we play or after?”

Jessica sat up like a shot, this time jerking her head into a table lamp. “Ouch. What??”

Alexi turned the phone around so that she could see the number displayed. It looked familiar.

“Why would you want to call my father?” she asked, her adrenalin kicking in over the throbbing of her head.

Alexi rolled his eyes. “Because he’s rich. And he wants you back.” He paused. “And I could use a little money right now.”

“But you’re rich!” Jess protested.

Alexi shook his head. “My father is rich. I’m not rich. And I’m not dumb, either . . . Now that I know your family won the lottery, they may be looking for something to invest in.” He narrowed his not-so-Nicol-like eyes. “Like your return.”

“But I . . . I wasn’t even kidnapped!”

“Now you are.” Alexi smiled down at her. He handed her the racquet. “On second thought, let’s play first.”

Jessica stared at him as he turned to pick up his racquet by the door. This time she wasn’t too tired to think. She stood up, wound up, and whacked him as if going for a winner, right on the head.

The fog had lifted when Jessica came bursting out the door onto the deck, the phone in her hand. She ran around the pool, dodged through some deck chairs, and scooted behind a lifeboat near the bow.

This may have been the stupidest thing she’d ever done, she thought, catching her breath. Next to throwing her racquet at Emma Duncalf in last year’s club finals. There was no cell phone service on a yacht. Not even one as super nice as this one. They were miles from shore.

And then she looked up. A very green and tall lady, holding a book and a torch, was looking down on her. . . .


Chapter SIX by Alan Thatcher

Steve Dwyer’s Ferrari drew some admiring glances as he pulled up outside the Vale Hotel. After checking into the Royal Suite, he checked his laptop. He had invited an old friend, who just happened to be an old flame, to join him for lunch.

A successful businessman, who had made a small fortune in the States, he had returned home for one simple reason. He loved a challenge. He wanted to see if he could repeat his American triumphs on English soil.

A talented squash player, he could have turned pro. Hitting winners came naturally to him. And so did making money.

The bonuses he earned working in a small but well-connected wealth management company in New York set him up for life.

But he preferred being his own boss. He opened a chain of health and fitness clubs that attracted thousands of members and generated a steady cash flow into his company coffers.

He was breaking new ground in America by making squash the focal point of the business, with at least four courts at most of his clubs.

Most Americans thought squash was a vegetable. But Dwyer knew, from his time at Harvard, that squash, the sport, was growing in popularity.

As an Ivy League sport, most colleges were now building large squash centres, hiring the game’s leading coaches and recruiting talented students from all over the world.

The headlines surrounding Trinity’s long unbeaten run, finally ended by Yale after 13 astonishing seasons, helped to create an aura about the sport.

Dwyer knew that the strong work ethic required in squash struck a chord with most Americans.  

They also enjoyed the British-style banter in the British-style pub that formed the social hub of all of his clubs.

He was convinced he could ride to the rescue of a sport that many felt was dying back home in the UK.

That’s why he had invited Jill Smith to lunch.

Jill’s day began as usual with getting son Sam ready for school, and promising to pick him up at 4pm to take him for a practice session with the county juniors.

When her phone rang, Jill saw a number she didn’t recognise. The long list of digits suggested a call from overseas.

“Hello?”

“Jill, it’s Steve Dwyer here.”

She caught her breath and stumbled on her reply. “What? Steve! How did you…? It’s…”

Steve smiled as he said: “Sorry to spring a surprise, but you haven’t answered any of my emails.”

His voice was calm and soothing and Jill tried to pull herself together.

“Oh my God. Sorry. I check every email hoping to hear news about Jessica,” she said. “When I saw it was from you I guess I couldn’t get my head round it. I didn’t know what to think. Steve, I’m so sorry. I should have answered. Where are you calling from?”

“I’m just up the road at the Vale Hotel. I was hoping you could join me for lunch,” said Steve.

“Seeing that number, I thought you were in America.”

“I must get it changed to a UK number,” he said. “It’ll make life easier.”

“Yes it will,” said Jill. “I was just on my way to the squash club for a board meeting. It should be over by 12 noon.”

“That’s fine,” said Steve. “I’ll pick you up at 12.30.”

Jill’s head was spinning. Why was Steve Dwyer calling her up after all these years? They had grown up together in the county junior squads and had been boyfriend and girlfriend for several months before Steve gained his scholarship to Harvard and moved to the States.

Their furtive fumblings at the back of the squash courts had turned into full-on passion when Steve bought his own car at the age of 18, but despite being close they knew that life would take them on different journeys.

Steve was an outstanding mathematics student as well as being a star member of the Harvard squash team, and Jill bagged her own place at Loughborough, immersing herself into sports science. 

They had stayed in touch for several years but that contact slowly dried up as Steve became embroiled in business and Jill went through a variety of relationships before marrying John.

She struggled to concentrate on her meeting at the squash club. She found all the legal and financial matters absolutely draining, and she needed to get home to check up on any possible news of her missing daughter.

Soon after Jessica’s disappearance, there were several reported sightings in various parts of the country. All had been false trails. But those calls had dried up and she needed to think of a new strategy to keep the police involved, instead of simply leaving Jessica’s name on a missing person’s list, soon to be forgotten.

She had planned to leave the meeting early to go home and get changed before meeting Steve Dwyer. She normally wore jeans or a tracksuit, especially if she was playing her friend Sally, and was keen to avoid answering any questions about choosing to dress smarter than usual.

But as she stepped over the weed-filled excuse for a lawn at the side of the club, she was confronted by a rather unusual sight. For parked next to her own small vehicle stood a gleaming, obviously very expensive, sleek red Ferrari.

Her jaw dropped as Steve Dwyer stepped out of the car and walked towards her. At 43, he was just as handsome as she recalled. Six feet tall, with just the merest hint of a grey fleck in his thick, black hair, it was cut stylishly and was much shorter than she remembered. Wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt, he looked every bit the relaxed executive, with a familiar and very fetching twinkle in his eye.

The smile, that charming, disarming smile, was just the same.

They hugged silently before tears filled Jill’s eyes. She tried to explain how difficult life had been these past few months but Steve wiped away a tear with his right index finger and then placed it on her lips.

“I know all about it,” he said. His voice was more mature than she remembered, but of course it would be after all these years. And there was no hint of an American accent despite years of living on the other side of the Pond.

Jill didn’t ask how he knew, but felt obliged to be cheerful, as most British people are programmed to behave, even in the direst of adversity. Pointing towards the Ferrari, she said: “Wow. This is amazing. I’ve never seen one of these up close before.”

“Rich boys’ toys,” said Steve. “I promised myself one when I grew up, but I couldn’t wait that long, so I bought it last year when I came back to the UK.”

“Yes, I’d heard on the grapevine that you were back from the States,” said Jill. “What made you come back?”

“I wanted to look at new businesses over here,” he said. “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today.”

“Gosh, sounds exciting,” said Jill. “But I can’t think why you would want any advice from me. You seem to be doing pretty well on your own, judging by the size of this car. It must have cost more than my house!”

“It may well have done,” said Steve. “But, like I say, it’s just a toy.”

“Let’s go for lunch at the hotel and we can both catch up on everything.”

As Steve moved towards his car and opened the passenger door, Jill hesitated. “I can’t go anywhere posh with me dressed like this, and especially not in this car. I was going to go home and change.”

Her face fell but Steve quickly reassured her. “It’s OK,” he said. “I’m wearing jeans, too.

“I don’t want to sound over the top, but I’ve actually got a suite at the hotel with its own dining room. I’ll order something on room service and we can chat away in private. How does that sound?”

A small smile crossed Jill’s face. “OK.”

The journey to the hotel took less than five minutes and Jill felt self-conscious as every pedestrian they passed gawped at the Ferrari.

Steve put his arm around her shoulder as he ushered through the hotel reception and up one flight of stairs to his suite.

Jill wondered how many illicit meetings Steve had initiated in this way.

When lunch arrived, Steve tipped the waiter and poured Jill a glass of champagne.

“Only a small one,” she said. “I’ve got to pick Sam up from school later on.”

They enjoyed the smoked salmon salad, followed by strawberries and cream, and, as the meal progressed, Jill told Steve about the awful events of the previous year.

He felt almost guilty at being so upbeat about all of his own activities.

They moved into the lounge and sat at each end of a huge, sprawling sofa. Jill felt safe at placing a large velvet cushion between them. Finally, she said: “So, why are you here? And what did you want to see me for?”

“Several reasons,” said Steve.

“Firstly, I’m buying the club.”

“What? That’s impossible.” Jill shook her head. “That wasn’t mentioned at this morning’s board meeting.”

“That’s because none of the board members knows anything about it,” said Steve. “I wanted you to be the first to know.

“And,” he added, “I want you to run the club for me.”

Jill was astonished. She didn’t know what to say. “But I can’t,” she said, finally. “It’s all been a terrible shambles. My life is a mess. We’ve got legal problems to sort out at the club, I’m looking after Sam as a single mum and I’m still trying to find my missing daughter.”

“I know,” said Steve. “I’ve instructed a solicitor to take care of all the legal matters at the club. You won’t have to worry about a thing. The aggrieved family will be offered a compensation package and it will all be taken care of away from the law courts, and the squash courts.”

Jill was amazed at his confidence, and his obvious knowledge of matters that she thought had been known only to the club board and a handful of members.

She smiled at his little joke but then became more defensive. “I’m astonished. You Americans think you can just breeze in and take over the bloody world,” she said. She was half-joking and half-serious.

Steve smiled again. “Firstly, I’m not bloody American. I’m very much an English gentleman but what I do have is confidence in my own ability.

“I’ve built a chain of clubs in America that has exceeded all my financial forecasts and I think it’s time we did something similar over here.

“British squash players are always bleating about clubs closing down as though the owners owe you some kind of favour.

“Most clubs in England were built as commercial ventures by businessmen taking calculated risks. That’s why squash became a boom sport in the 1980s and the businessmen just wanted a piece of the action. It had very little to do with any imagination or investment from within the sport itself. The squash boom came and went and now the flavour of the month in business terms is the ability to take large amounts of money off people to join a fancy gym. Where squash was once the way to make easy money, now the gym chains have taken over that role in the leisure industry.

“Even they are feeling the pinch in the recession but I’m looking at a new concept where we build community sports clubs with squash as a major part of the mix.

 “Just imagine if your courts were used for other activities during the day, and that spare parcel of land next to the club was used for tennis and five-a-side football. Add a gym, a sports injury clinic, and, heaven forbid, a decent restaurant, and that way the club would be busy every day, from 9am to 10 or 11pm, seven days a week.”

“You need a lot of money for that,” said Jill.

“Bingo,” the penny’s dropped.

“You don’t have to be sarcastic,” said Jill, suddenly becoming uneasy at her surroundings.

“Sorry, I’m not. I just know that most English squash clubs are run by boring committees. They are always more worried about cleaning the loos, sweeping the courts and making sure the showers work instead of marketing the club and promoting the sport. They have no idea about business. Usually, they are a bunch of old farts who hate juniors and just want to keep things ticking over the way they have for years, while the club and the sport dies around them.”

His tone had become more forceful and Jill said: “Nice speech. Now I can see why you get your own way in business. But I agree with what you say, most of it, anyway.”

“Sorry,” said Steve. “It’s just that I’m passionate about what I do. I made a lot of money in America and I made my mind up that from here on in I would only get involved in things that I love.”

He looked at Jill as he spoke but he didn’t want to overplay his hand. He didn’t want to come across as the pushy tycoon and frighten her off. He wasn’t sure if he was doing a good job.

He added: “Look, you can work the hours you choose around your domestic responsibilities and Sam can always bring his homework to the club. If he’s anything like I was at his age then he’ll love to spend as much time as he can at the club.

“I’ve heard a lot about him and would love to get on court with him some time soon, and see how good he really is. Maybe this afternoon, if that’s possible? I’ve got plenty of free time and would love to see how good the latest county juniors are.”

Jill struggled to take it all in. “Well, that’s all very nice, but what about Jessica? I might have to drop everything at a moment’s notice to go and find her.”

Steve held his breath and chose his words carefully before saying: “Well, I hope you don’t mind. But I think I can help you there as well. I am happy to provide all the legal help you need. In fact, I have already spoken to a very well-connected private investigator. He thinks he can help. I hope you don’t mind…”

Jill began to squirm. Deep inside, she felt uneasy at someone who was a virtual stranger assuming that he could take so much control over her life.

“What? I don’t understand why you’re doing all this. You march into my life and just think you can walk all over me and get your own way because you have all this money?”

“It’s very simple, but very difficult at the same time,” he said. “When I left for America, I always imagined that you and I would get back together one day.

“But then we both went our separate ways. I got married and divorced, but really I was married to the job.

“And there, at the back of my mind, all the time I was thinking about you.

“When I heard about John, I tried to find out the reason he took that overdose, and that’s when a friend told me about Jessica going missing.

“I’ve come back to England because I miss so much about life over here, and especially you.

“I know you have a mountain of problems but I just want to do anything and everything I can to help you.”

Both were silent before Steve continued.

“I still love you. I always have done. I know I’ve been away in America, and I know it’s been years since we’ve seen each other, but I have always loved you. I’ve missed you so much.”

Tears, again, rolled down Jill’s cheeks. “It’s been more than 20 years,” she said. “It’s all too much of a shock. Do you honestly think we can just pick things up where we left off as teenagers?

“So much has happened. So many bad things. And you just come walking back into my life like this. It’s easy for you, but you have no idea what I’ve been through these past few months.

“I’m trying to find my missing daughter and I really don’t know if I can trust another man at the moment, let alone get involved again.”

She quickly brushed aside thoughts of her dalliances with her friend Gerry, who had helped her through so many difficult times at the club.

“Like I say, I just want to help,” said Steve.

“I’ll give you a lift back to the club if you like. Or I can call a cab if you prefer.”

Jill dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She breathed out a huge sigh and shook her head. “Look, it’s probably me who owes you an apology. Coming out of the blue, all this is just overwhelming.

“But, look at you. Handsome as ever, ploughing your way through life like you always did, and always getting your own way.

“You’re a lovely man, Steve. You’re saying all these kind things but I’m not sure I can take all this in at the moment.

“Can you give me some time to think about it?”

“Of course I can. There’s no rush. I can instruct my solicitors to be as discreet as possible with the purchase of the club, and, if anything leaks out, can I just ask you to act like you know nothing about it?”

Jill nodded. She moved closer to him and perched herself on the middle of the sofa. She touched his shirt, stroked his arm, then let her hand drop. “There you go, getting your own way again.”

Steve smiled. “Maybe. Maybe not. You kept me guessing enough when we were younger.

“Remember all those county tournaments where we used to sneak off outside the club instead of marking the other matches?”

Jill grinned. “How could I forget? It was lucky I had a red face from playing squash because if the coaches knew what we’d been up to I don’t think I could have hidden the blushes.”

She looked deep into his green eyes, wondering what she could see there. The tender look that came back told her everything she needed to know.

“I need a drink of water,” she said.

Steve went to the well-stocked minibar and returned with a glass of chilled, sparkling Perrier.

“They used to sponsor tournaments in France,” said Steve, placing the half-empty bottle on the coffee table in front of the sofa.

“In fact, we both took home Perrier T-shirts after playing in the European junior tournament in Paris.”

Jill sipped her water and fixed him with a look that melted his heart.

“That was where we first kissed,” she said.

“Yes, and a lot more besides,” said Steve, cocking his head to one side with a cheeky grin.

Jill put down her glass on the table. She stood up and Steve followed her towards the door.

As they walked through the dining room and passed the remnants of their lunch on the table, Jill turned and stood opposite Steve. She slipped a finger inside one of the buttons on his shirt and touched his chest. 

“Are you going to show me the rest of the suite? I don’t have to pick up Sam for another hour and a half.”

 

Their lovemaking was passionate, desperate and, at times, intensely physical.

For Jill, it allowed her to release months of pent-up tension. As they dressed, her cheeks were flushed. She said: “I can tell you’re still a squash player. You still have the perfect length.”

Steve quickly whispered: “Thank you. And I hope I haven’t lost my touch up front.”

When Jill collected Sam from school, she told him: “I’ve got a surprise for you. I know it’s not Christmas, but a friend of mine wants to give you a ride in his posh car and then give you some free squash coaching.”

Sam’s face was a picture as he gazed at the Ferrari. If any kid deserved a treat it was him.

He had no idea who this mystery man was, and he had no idea how his life was about to change.


Chapter SEVEN, by Rob Dinerman

   Change it had, all right, beginning right with that ride in the Ferrari that afternoon and the squash lesson that followed. Steve Dwyer had come into Sam’s (and Jill’s) life just when their downward spiral had seemed on the verge of permanently capsizing both of them. He had promptly taken steps towards purchasing the club, per his promise to Jill, with only some paperwork still left to be signed, and his hand-picked solicitor was well on his way to resolving the lawsuit filed by Walter’s family. The private investigator Steve had hired to locate Jessica had come up with several leads, none of which had panned out in the intervening six months, but Steve had good reason to believe that that pursuit would come to a successful conclusion as well. As progress continued to be made on these several intertwined fronts, Jill’s mood had correspondingly lifted,  as she increasingly realized she could indeed trust this knight in shining armor from long ago who had re-entered her life all these years later with solutions to so many of the problems that had seemed so overwhelming prior to his surprise appearance. She was even getting more upbeat about Jessica being found and safely returned to the fold.

   As for Sam, Steve had seemed to take a special interest in him, which no one had done during those growing-up years when his more charismatic twin sister had enjoyed most of the spotlight. With her good looks, prepossessing natural talents (on the squash court and in the classroom) and flair for the dramatic, Jessica was always getting most of the attention, while Sam had lingered (not always as contentedly as he let on) in her shadow. Steve had seen a potential in Sam that no one else, including his parents, had ever noticed, and some of those overlooked qualities had steadily emerged under Steve’s encouragement and prodding.

   As winter turned to spring, Steve became more and more convinced that, although Sam was improving in his schoolwork and his game, he would benefit from a more disciplined and structured environment, and that a prep school in New England, the
Aullt Academy in northern Massachusetts, with its rigorous academic standards and emphasis on athletics and citizenship, would be exactly what Sam needed. Under normal circumstances, a late-May application for the following academic year would be far too late, December 1st being the deadline date to apply, with acceptances mailed out by mid-March. But one of Steve’s squash teammates at Harvard, an Aullt Academy alum, was now a member of his prep-school alma mater’s Board Of Trustees, and Steve, who had swung several lucrative business deals that had made his friend a ton of money, was (with Jill’s somewhat reluctant blessing) readily able to persuade the fellow to pull some strings and secure a spot for Sam in the lower-year (i.e. 10th grade) class.

   It had not been an easy transition at first, and Sam in his early letters and emails home frequently complained of how demanding an environment he had brusquely been thrown into. As one of maybe 50 new lowers joining 100 or so classmates who during their ninth-grade year at
Aullt had already firmly established their own pecking order, Sam and the others who entered in 10th grade were regarded by the returnees as interlopers, impostors, indeed almost INVADERS eager to usurp the top spots on a totem pole that had been meticulously constructed throughout the course of the prior school year. Plus Sam and the roommate he had been assigned to in Webster Hall dormitory (a snobbish fellow 10th-grader from an elite private-school in Connecticut who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and acted the part) had gotten off to a bad start right off the bat, arguing unnecessarily on the first afternoon of registration who should have the larger of the two rooms comprising Webster 15. The roommate along with his parents had arrived in the room about 20 minutes before Sam, just enough time for them to have plopped down their suitcases in the bigger room.

  It wasn’t being consigned to the smaller room in back that had bothered Sam, but rather the attitude of the roommate, who clearly felt that he DESERVED the larger area, and the relationship had deteriorated from there, to the point where by early fall it had become clear that Sam and his roommate would never become chummy, that, without there ever having been a blow-out argument, there were just enough small resentments, a look here, an offhand remark or smirking putdown or overheard comment there, to cause the two to be doomed to spend the entire year circling around each other like wary cats who would have preferred not to share the same owner but had accepted their situation and divided up the turf more or less to both parties’ mutual if grudging satisfaction. Indeed, Sam had privately gotten quite a bit of pleasure at his roommate’s pratfall one afternoon during a home football game.

   Sam had no idea how American football was played, but everyone on campus had been talking with such anticipation that October Saturday morning about the upcoming contest with one of
Aullt’s main prep-school rivals that he had felt compelled to walk the half-mile to the small stadium on the far end of campus to see what all the excitement was about. He found it difficult to understand the game but had no difficulty understanding what happened to his roommate, who played trombone (and bragged about it) in the Academy’s marching band, which was performing at halftime, all precision and straight lines and carefully detailed patterns --- that is, until suddenly the perfection was marred by a trombone lying clearly out of place on the grass for several seconds before it was frantically scooped up by its errant owner, Sam’s roommate, as Sam cackled with ungenerous but undeniable glee.

   Beyond these diplomatic interpersonal issues, coping with the sheer volume and pace of the school work had been the most challenging aspect of all for Sam, who had always thought of himself as being a competent student, a complacent self-impression that within weeks – really within the first several days of the FIRST week --- had been severely jarred by the reality of the
Aullt curriculum. Keeping up with the course load required intense between-classes study (teachers each assigned several hours of homework from one session to the next, serene in what to them was the comforting two-part view that, 1, Aullt wasn’t for everybody, and, 2, there were plenty of high schools who would gladly absorb an Aullt casualty) and class sessions were conducted according to the extraordinarily innovative but equally double-edged Bowditch Plan. A rich alum of that name nearly a century ago had purchased oval and circular tables for the classrooms in every discipline but the sciences; students (usually 12 to 14 per class, a remarkably low teacher to student ratio) would sit not at individual desks but in chairs arrayed around those tables facing each other, with the teacher either also sitting at the table or, more rarely, illustrating a point at the blackboard, the operative theory being that a more free-ranging and spontaneous classroom exchange would result from this novel format.

   Rather than having to raise their hands to participate, students would interact in the discussion of a topic or the solving of a problem much in the manner of friends gathered around a dinner table, with the teacher giving his charges relatively free rein while still making sure that the conversation did not go totally off course. One thing for sure about the Bowditch Plan, as Sam had discovered first-hand and in chastening fashion by mid-September --- whereas in the “regular” classroom structure if you hadn’t done your homework, you might get away with sitting at the back of the room behind a large student to avoid being called upon (Sam had occasionally pulled this off in grade school), at Aullt there was absolutely no place to hide, or for that matter to hide the fact that you weren’t prepared. Just as someone’s non-participation at a dinner table discussion is often swiftly noted by his/her table-mates, usually with some discomfiture and concern, similarly no one could come to those oval/circular tables unprepared and realistically expect to get through the first TEN MINUTES of the fifty-minute session, much less the entire class, without everyone in the room becoming aware of his silence, and its implications. If for no other reason than to avoid being embarrassed at being exposed (and not only silence, but also body language, could be counted on to give an errant student away), Sam resolved early on to never come to class without having done his homework.

   Jill, who had had her doubts (as had Sam) about the wisdom of sending Sam across the ocean to
Aullt in the first place before both of them had, albeit with some misgivings, yielded to Steve’s judgment, was concerned by her son’s grousing communications (which included an occasional phone call) home, but Steve saw them as confirmation of the decision to enroll Sam at Aullt. The kind of hands-on prodding that the setting there provided – indeed imposed --- upon its students was exactly what Steve accurately perceived Sam needed to emerge from the shadow of his sister and reach his potential. And indeed as the autumn months moved along, Sam came to realize that Steve had been right and that, slowly but surely, he was growing into this new environment, propelled by its demands and the excellence of many of his classmates to a higher standard than he ever would have attained had he remained in his particular school system in England.

  He fed off the quiet energy that permeated the leafy campus, and when he ascended the marble steps of the Academy Building six mornings a week (yes, there were Saturday classes through the morning) and read the Latin engraving above the doorway “Huc Venite Pueri Ut Viri Sitis” (“Come here as boys that you can become men”) --- founded in the mid-1700’s as an all-boys school, Aullt had been co-ed for nearly 50 years, yet the engraving had never been adjusted --- it was with a sense of excitement and anticipation that he had never experienced prior to coming to
Aullt.

   Sam had to admit as well that the change of scenery had done him a world of good, representing as it did a needed escape from the multi-front troubles that had engulfed his family ever since the fatal incident at the Vale Squash Club, his sister’s still unexplained and unsolved disappearance, and the legal quagmire and his father’s overdose that had ensued. Thankfully one of John’s closest friends, Malcolm Pearson, the one who had placed the phone call right before John had swallowed his pile of pills and a person whose ability to think coolly under stressful circumstances had bailed him out several times in the past as well, had gotten the medics to him in time to save his life; John had spent all these interceding months in a psychiatric facility, receiving treatment, counseling and therapy for his emotional wounds, with no clear-cut timetable for his release.

    In a way it was just as well that Sam was of necessity fully immersed in his activities in this new school, so distant in miles and mood from the worries that had been dragging himself and his mother down back at home. Reference was often made to the “
Aullt bubble,” and in fact the place did function as a world of its own, almost an oasis (albeit an extremely demanding one) from the outside world, and the challenges of whatever came next, the next paper, the next exam, the next athletic event (all students were required to choose a sport for the fall, winter and spring, with practice every weekday afternoon and players assigned to varsity, JV and club teams) were enough to commandeer all of Sam’s focus, energy and attention.

   All, that is, except for the quiet moments of reflection that occasionally surfaced amid the hubbub, maybe in his dorm room after he had finished a reading assignment, or between classes as he headed on the pathway from one building to another, the buzz of his fellow students around him, when Sam suddenly found himself wondering what had happened to Jessica, if she was okay and indeed, if she was still alive. Sam respected his sister for her drive, her passion (even when it caused her to lose her temper) and the aggressive way she confronted challenges, whether on court or off, and he clung to a belief that somehow she could, and would, find her way out of any predicament that befell her. Still, it had been well over a year and to this point even the investigator Steve had summoned, as noted, had been unable to come up with a solid lead to work with.

   Of course one of the times Sam thought of his sister was when the squash season began shortly before Thanksgiving recess. Even though ice hockey was the “glory” sport at New England prep schools during the winter months (neighborhood kids as young as four or five years old were already skating on double-bladed skates on patches of ice in their back yards), with basketball a somewhat close second, still
Aullt had an amazing squash facility as well, 10 glass back wall courts, two of them exhibition courts with seating capacity of several hundred, within the confines of the cavernous gymnasium. As a newcomer to the program, Sam had initially been inserted at the bottom of the ladder (to play in interscholastic meets as a member of Aullt’s varsity one had to be in the top seven, with Nos. 8 through 14 comprising the JV) but by mid-December, aided substantially by the lessons Steve had given him and others Steve had arranged with some of the better teaching pros (which had improved the power and placement of his drives, added sharpness to his front-court game and increased his confidence in his volley as well), Steve had steadily progressed to No. 5.

   He had capped off this climb with an uplifting breakthrough win against an upperclassman who had beaten him handily (and partly by psyching him out) the first time they played. In the rematch several weeks later, Sam, refusing to be distracted by any of his opponent’s mind games, had arm-fought his way through a pivotal 12-10 tiebreaker in the third to go up two games to one and won the fourth going away 11-3 with an exhilarating sprint to the tape as his demoralized foe essentially conceded the last few points, too far behind to have a realistic chance to catch up and too depressed to try. The fifth position might be the highest that Sam could hope to attain that season --- the No. 1 player had learned the game as a youngster in the elite program in Malaysia and the No. 2 had represented the USA the previous summer in the World Junior Championships in Toronto---  but all four players ahead of him were upperclassmen, which meant that Sam would move up as the players above him graduated and therefore was well positioned to become captain-elect at the end of his 11th-grade season and to eventually inherit the No. 1 position if he held his spot in the lineup.

   Sam’s win had come on a day that fell smack in the middle of what was dubbed “Holy Week,” when many of the final exams for the fall semester would be administered and the final papers and presentations were due. He had spent only a little time that evening savoring his squash result --- he had an important Latin exam scheduled for the following morning and therefore after dinner he devoted several hours to reading the speeches by Cicero that the class had been studying. Mr. Easton, well into his 60’s and nearing retirement, was “old school” in more ways than one and throughout the semester he had shown a knack for plumbing any passages in the text that Sam had not attended to.

   Still, by 10:25 that night, just a few minutes before lights-out for everyone but seniors, Sam relaxed back in his chair (to the extent one COULD relax on the Academy chairs, which were made of hard wood with no cushioning), confident that he was ready for whatever Mr. Easton threw at him. He couldn’t think of a day that whole semester that had gone better; in just 10 days he would be flying back home for the Christmas holidays, thanking Steve for the changes he had made in all their lives and basking in the glow of a triumphant first term at
Aullt.

   The knock on his door surprised him – it wasn’t 10:30 yet and besides, the dorm faculty members were being lenient with the lights-out edict that week, aware that their charges needed to get that extra little bit of studying in with it being Holy Week and all. When Sam opened the door, a fellow student, who lived two stories below him on Webster’s ground floor, was there, telling Sam that someone had called the dorm’s common phone asking to speak to him. Sam hurried downstairs, a kind of nervous chill coursing through him, and when he picked up, the voice on the other end of the line was so familiar to him that he sometimes felt he must have heard it even when they were both in Jill’s womb.

   “Sammy, it’s me!”

    There was only one person in the world who called him by that name.

    “I’m in New York  --- you’ve GOT to help me!” Then a gasp, sounds of a struggle, and the line went dead, leaving Sam holding the phone, KNOWING he had to do something to come to the aid of his twin sister, who for once was the one needing HIM (it had always been the other way around).

    But WHAT?

    And HOW?


Chapter EIGHT, by John Branston

One year, two months, and 23 days from retirement. Hack Thomas had it all figured out. His once promising career as a police officer, derailed by his uncontrollable temper and drinking, was winding up in this small town in New England, busting teenagers for DUI and answering complaints about peeping toms and barking dogs. It paid $900 a week, enough for a single man to live on, and he owed it to sobriety, a sympathetic former partner with a soft spot for burn-out cases, and a connected relative in the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. Wouldn't be long now until he could start collecting his pension and move back to Tennessee.

The phone in his untidy office rang and he reached over to pick it up.

“Davis Barker here, with the behavior evaluation and threat assessment staff over at Aullt. We met last year on that gun scare in our senior dorm. Sorry to wake you up, Hack, but I've got something I want you to look at.”

“Don't tell me. One of your faculty get frisky and jump a student?”

“Fraternizing went out with the Clinton administration. We're all about compliance now. One of our first-year students got an interesting phone call last night. British kid, sent over by his mother and her rich boyfriend. He says it was his twin sister who's been missing for more than a year. She's all excited, blurts out that she's in New York, then it sounds like somebody maybe roughs her up a little and takes the phone away. That's it.”

“Easy enough to trace the call.”

“No, it came in on an old common phone with no digital display and we couldn't run it back. They don't call us old school for nothing.”

“Kid with an overactive imagination? Probably read about the Elizabeth Smart case,” Hack suggested.

“Maybe. We were a little hesitant about taking him as a late admission, but international students help our profile and the guy paying the bills is loaded.”

“Are we talking capital fund endowment?”

“You said that, not me. The boy's name is Sam Smith. He's definitely got a twin sister named Jessica  and apparently she disappeared last year. We talked to the mother and she was all excited to hear that her daughter's alive. She said she hasn't seen or heard from the girl since she vanished from a squash club in London. She and her husband are separated, and we haven't talked to him yet. Something about an involuntary commitment to a psych facility.”

Hack tried to focus on the call but his attention was distracted by his retirement calculations and the passing parade outside his window.

“My hearing's not what it used to be,” he said, and in truth it wasn't. “Did you say something about a pub?”

“No, squash club. The sport. As in racquets and balls. We have some courts here. After talking to the kid and his mother half the night I'd say that calling the family dysfunctional would be polite. Sam might be the only normal one in the bunch. The whole convoluted yarn is about people whose lives revolve around squash.”

“I think I saw it on television once in the Olympics.”

“Actually you didn't, but that's not important. What I want you to do is talk to an investigator the mother and her boyfriend have hired. This is a little out of my league and I need some help. We don't know quite what to believe, but we have to take everything seriously since Virginia Tech and Aurora. If it turns out to be a runaway or a domestic he-says-she-says then it's not our problem. But the kid was pretty shook up. He seems to think he might be in danger himself. Frankly, I think he's short-changing us on the story. If he gets dragged into a criminal case then we want to – make that have to – cooperate. We'd like to keep ahead of the curve. And for now at least we'd rather none of this got out.”

Hack glanced at the small pile of arrest tickets and reports on his desk and the partially completed solitaire game on his computer screen. Aullt was full of stuffed shirts, but he remembered Barker as a straight shooter and a good guy.

“What's the investigator's name?” he asked.

“Angus Murray. The mother says he's been working on the girl's disappearance for quite a while. Supposed to have worked for Scotland Yard back in the day.”

“Right. And I'm James Bond. What's the number?”

“Thanks, Hack. I owe you. Remember the five-hour time difference. I hear the Brits take their sleep seriously. Oh, and ask him to tell you the story about the handy man and the air conditioner.”

“The what?”

“Just make the call.”

Hack sighed and took down the number and said good-bye. He took a marker and scrawled “Jessica Smith” and “kidnapping?” and “Sam Smith, Aullt” on a note pad. As an afterthought, he wrote “hair conditioner”. A woman with an impatient look on her face was standing on the other side of the counter outside his office. Duty calling. With no aces up, the solitaire game looked like a loser anyway.

One block from the police station, Bianca Phipps was leaving work at the Weekly Scene. That such a relic from the age of print newspapers existed at all was due to Tom McFadden, a former editor and Pulitzer finalist at the Boston Globe. Like everyone else old enough to remember Carl Yastrzemski, he had been offered a buyout five years ago. He took it, but was bored stiff after a month and used the cash, a loan, and a promise to buy the Scene. Bianca Phipps, a college dropout, came to see him the first week. She wore sneakers, jeans, and a Wellesley t-shirt and had a ring in her nose, a green streak in her blonde hair, and a self-assurance that was disturbing.

She was the perfect hire, equal parts charm and guile. She could write, take pictures, size people up, ask the right question at the right time and get an answer so honest it would surprise even the person saying it. She could fix computers, program them, or, McFadden suspected, hack into them. She shared his disdain for social media but, unlike him, understood them and used them. If he was lucky, she would stay with him another six months, tops.

“I'm headed out,Tom,” she said with a wave. “I'll see if Hack's got anything before I go home.”



John Smith was no longer in the psychiatric facility. Even British health care has its limits, and after several months his therapist decided that he was no threat to himself or anyone else. Too much Mobic mixed with alcohol and anger. The disappearance of his daughter Jessica, the break-up of his marriage, the unlucky Walter and his bulldog daughter, the fiasco with the public liability policy, it was too much for any man. Had it only been a couple of years since he and Jill had won the lottery and bought the club and were grooming the twins for squash tournaments as if that was a big deal?

Thinking of Jill could throw John into one of the black moods his therapist warned him about. Her  bitchy remarks to him about his forgetfulness and incompetence. The flirty conversations with the male players, even old Gerry sometimes. And the rich Harvard prick she had finally left him for. An old flame. Probably had to get in line for his shot.

Easy boy, don't go there, John reminded himself. Some day he would fix all of their asses but today he had a game with Gerry. Court therapy, John called it. During the long nights in the psych ward, he had put himself to sleep by closing his eyes and imagining a younger version of himself hitting rail after rail tight against the backhand wall. But Gerry could be a pain in the ass to play. With Walter dead, he'd had a hard time getting a game. Of course John wasn't on anyone's call list either these days, so he swallowed his pride and called the old bugger, who actually sounded glad to hear from him.

When John walked in the Vale Squash Club, Stephanie, the girl at the front desk, gave him a fake-looking smile.

“Hello, Mr. Smith. Nice to see you back,” she said, wondering how he had the nerve to show himself.

Two women checking in looked up at him, exchanged looks, and edged toward the locker rooms. At the snack bar, another woman and a man that John vaguely remembered pretended not to see him. They said something to each other and laughed. The lobby was freshly painted and carpeted, with flat-screen televisions in a new lounge. There was a flyer on a table announcing an upcoming exhibition match with John White and Peter Nicol. John and Jill had never been able to attract even second-tier pros. The court where Frank the Fuck-Up inadvertently set the fatal trap for old Walter had been thoroughly cleaned and given a new floor. The cleaned glass, fresh towels, and the smack of so many balls against walls and so many pairs of gum soles squeaking on newly sanded floors practically screamed “Under New Management.”

Gerry was waiting outside Court Two. He got up to shake John's hand, which was more than anyone else had done.

“Good to see you again,” he said. “You don't look so bad after your little vacation. Lost a few pounds?”

Same old Gerry. Get right to the point and put the needle in at the same time.

“Yes, but I wouldn't recommend it. You still having your way with arthritic old men and innocent young ladies?

So it went, back and forth, as they walked into the court and warmed up. After the third game, John began to wonder if he had made a mistake. Gerry was killing him. Insufferable even when he was winning, Gerry had an annoying way of saying “good hustle” when his opponent missed a shot. Or “Nice shot, lucky prick,” which he thought was hilarious. He had been playing for 40 years but acted like he had never heard the word “clear.” He'd plant himself in the front corners, stick his butt out, hold his shot, and take a roundhouse backswing that would take your head off if you got too close. When John got a sitter near the front wall, Gerry would invariably run into him even if he had no chance on the ball. “Just a let, please,” he would say as he turned his back.

When John protested, Gerry muttered something about “your mind is not quite right.” But John didn't snap then. Instead he walked off the court. He snapped a minute later.

“You quitting on me?” Gerry whined. “Hell, Jill hits harder than you do.”

John froze for a few seconds, then took a  racquet out of his bag, a top-of-the-line Black Knight that cost him 150 pounds. He sized up the smirking face in front of him. Grinning like a maniac, he wound up and hit the sweetest overhead he had hit in years.

“Harder than that, son of a bitch?"


Chapter NINE by The Squashist

John shot a gimlet gaze heavenward, eyeballing the gibbous moon shining through the barred window above his bed. Nice moon, he thought, and to think that we humans had once ventured there! The psychotropics coursing through his body encouraged him to dwell on this magnificent thought for a while as his eyes drifted back out of focus and his mind danced along the border of consciousness.

Ow, how his body ached!

And then he remembered. He had succeeded in giving a highly satisfying shellacking to that lunkhead Gerry. Using a squash stroke that would have made an excellent volley kill, he bonked the crusty old dolt upside his head. But he didn’t stop there. Oh, no sir. As Gerry stood dazed by this attack, John then used the squash racket in his hand as an epee, pointing it at Gerry’s bewildered face and stabbing it at his rather large proboscis. When Gerry bent low to fend off the continued assault, John kneed him full force in the stomach, and down he went.

John, that is, not Gerry, because the dullard Frank, still lumbering around the club pretending to do odd jobs while trying to avoid killing people, had seen the commotion, and in a sudden upwelling of long-dormant athleticism tackled John with a flying leap that sent John’s head smacking to the ground, knocking him well and truly out. Someone called the cops, and by the time the ugly mess was sorted out, Gerry was sent home with a bit of acetaminophen, Frank was lauded by the cops for potentially stopping a homicide, and John was carted back to the psych facility, where he was isolated and dosed up with calming agents.

The admitting psychiatrist, Dr. Abdel Funk, surmised that John, who not too long ago had tried to do himself harm, had now transferred the focus of his enmity to others, and by so doing had become a threat to society. Dr. Funk, an unapologetic proponent of pharmacologic intervention, concocted a mind-numbing stew of psychotropics for John’s benefit in the rather unscientific hope that one of them might possibly help his patient. He started with an antipsychotic, for signs of mania, and then added a newer atypical antipsychotic for good measure. He threw in a tricyclic, since there were clearly signs of depression, and thought, what the hell, he seems anxious, let’s dose him up with an anxiolytic. And even though obsessionality didn’t seem to be too prevalent, he also wrote a prescription for an anti-obsessive agent, mostly because the pharmaceutical rep who regularly visits his office had promised him an iPad if he wrote a certain number of scripts this quarter. He was damn close.

The next day, in the quiet of the morning, Dr. Funk visited John, whose head was buzzing from the drug cocktail and whose resultant lethargy was reminiscent of a heroin addict’s overwhelming lassitude. The good Dr. Funk introduced himself and explained the drug regimen to his unwilling guest: “I’ve prescribed a few drugs for you that will make you more calm and allow you to rest and recover from the mental perturbation you have lately undergone,” he said, smiling winningly.

“Fuck you, Funk,” John said, slurring his words, while still managing an unmistakable hint of conviction. With that, Dr. Funk exited the room and wrote in John’s chart: “Patient shows continued aggression and clear tendencies to violence. Increase all script doses up 10 mg.”

The next day, burdened by a brain that seemed more cotton ball than functioning intellectual center, he was wheeled into the day room, where the other patients were assembled. A TV was on, but few had the wherewithal to watch. Most were perseverative and quiet islands of dysfunction, with the exception of a fellow named Rodney, who felt no shame in enthusiastically masturbating in a corner, and a guy named Suzy – well, that’s what he insisted his name was, anyway – who carried on a rather interesting conversation with his good buddy, God. This proved fascinating for John, who listened in as intently as his condition allowed, and became more interested as the conversation went on because, he had to admit, he never truly believed in Him, and here He was talking to Suzy. Wow, I wonder if He might talk to me too? John asked Suzy to perhaps provide an introduction, but the latter violently explained that he was the son of God and the Father only talks to him! Suzy was led away gently by the staff, in restraints, shouting godly epithets.

It might have been a day or two later, or maybe three, but the good Dr. Funk eventually arrived in John’s room to inspect his case. “John, how are you feeling? I know you have been angry lately, but I’m hoping you’ve been able to relax a bit and enter into a calmer state.”

“Funk you, fuck,” John slurred, and dropped his head back onto his pillow.

Wow, thought the good Dr. Funk, he’s one tough nut, as crazy as a hoot owl. “Titrate all meds up 10 mg more,” he wrote in the chart.

Does time really heal all wounds? Nah, highly doubtful, but the near coma that had been prescribed to John eventually allowed Dr. Funk to loosen his pharmaceutical straightjacket in the belief that John’s vacant stare indicated resurgent calm. The drug regimen was eased to the point where John was able to crawl out of the cobwebs that had entombed him and rejoin sentient society. He asked for a newspaper, started fretting about his fractured family, and thought about that glorious day when he could leave the hospital.
Before that day arrived, however, he received a visitor, the first since his incarceration.

=========================

“Hiya, John Smith, sorry to interrupt you, but I’m working with Angus Murray and…”

John was confused. “Who the hell is Angus Murray? And who are you?”

“Me? I’m Bianca. Bianca Phipps. I was hired by Angus, you remember him, don’t you? He’s the private dick that’s out looking for Jessica.”

“What?! Is this sexual?”

“No, no…. I know you’re tired….” She rolled her eyes. “Your wife Jill has got a private eye looking for Jessica. The dick thing is American slang. You do remember Jessica, don’t you?” she asked doubtfully.

Oh yeah, now I remember, thought John. That expensive private eye that Jill’s rich boyfriend hired, and who has done nothing as far as he could tell. “Yeah, I remember,” John said, readjusting his butt in his chair. “Okay, I got it, sorry… But who are you?”

“Well, as of just recently I’m Angus’ assistant. I met him 10 days ago when he came to Massachusetts to follow-up a hot lead in the case. It seems that your son, Sam, got a call at the Aullt Academy from his sister. She seemed frantic. The school notified the local police, a guy named Hack Thomas. I worked at the town paper and made it a habit of bugging Hack to drum up local stories. So when Angus arrived the next day, I was there and listened in on the conversation.”

John stared at this Bianca girl. She seemed awfully young, and the streak of red hair and nose ring did not give the greatest impression. Plus there was a large tattoo of indeterminate design around the stylized words, “Girls Rock.” John decided not to mention that. “So how did you get involved?” he asked.

“Well, as I was listening in, it became apparent that they would not be able to trace the call, so other than the fact that she told her brother she was in New York and was undeniably alive, not much else was learned. Hack and Angus seemed stumped. But I chimed in with a few ideas.”

“Like?”

“I figured that the best way to trace her would be through some kind of social media, so I suggested a full-on trolling of Twitter and Facebook for starters. For whatever reason people just can’t shut the hell up nowadays, so whenever something interesting happens they throw it out into the universe for all to see. I thought we might be able to trace an IP address if we could find something, and Hack said it’s possible to get a court order to force either company to reveal specific user information if a crime has been suspected. And in this case, a crime is suspected, since according to Sam she appeared to be held under duress.”

“Really…? Poor Jessica, and poor Sam.”

“Angus liked my ideas and hired me on the spot, and I and a friend hit the social media world full time. We’ve been tweeting and facebooking for a solid week now. Honestly, I thought I’d puke. The idea was to focus on squash and fashion, because those seemed to be the two things your daughter was most interested in. Would you agree?”

“Yeah, I guess so. You might throw boys in that mix, but those are good choices.”

“Well, we think we might have a lead, so that’s the good news. But Angus wanted me to come here and ask you personally, Why do you think your daughter would want to run away?”

“Run away? I thought you said she was under duress. Doesn’t that mean she was abducted?”

“No. Our feeling is that she went willingly, but whoever she went with may now either be holding her against her will or at least making it hard for her to return.”

John blinked. The cotton balls in his brain were not entirely gone. “I don’t understand….”

“I’ll explain as best I can. But first, any guess as to why she would run away?”

“No, not at all. She was a happy kid. A little high-strung, of course. They say redheads are born that way. She complained a lot, but nothing major, just the usual griping about this and that that kids all do. She was very motivated in her sport, but that could lead to trouble from time to time, since she could get angry in matches and act like a brat. But no, all in all, she seemed fine to me.”

“And her relationship with you?”

“Fine. Not a problem, and she got along perfectly well with her twin Sam.”

“And her mother?”

“Well, I think all in all pretty good. There was perhaps a little friction there. Jill got on her case pretty heavily from time to time about how she dressed, her occasionally bratty behavior, her obsession with her cell phone, stuff like that. Mothers and daughters can attack one another like feral cats from time to time, that’s part of the deal.”

“Man, don’t I know it. But go on.”

“And for her part, Jessica had started complaining a fair amount about how we were never around, always at the club, she said. The ‘club from fucking hell’ is what she called it – so did I, for that matter. She loved her squash, but she emphatically did not like our involvement in the squash club. Didn’t like having mom and dad hanging around her all the time while she played her matches, either.”

“Ah, I see,” said Bianca. “So do you think it is possible that growing friction with her mother plus the stress of club ownership might have pushed this young girl to do something as drastic as running away? Keeping in mind the hormonal rush of the early teen years; the hyperfocus on friends and appearances; the inability to think things through beyond the most immediate of gratifications; the possibility that she met, quite likely online, someone whose life and looks so overwhelmed her that she decided to take the leap….”

John thought about it a moment. The truth was that Jessica was very voluble. Yes, he realized, it was possible.

=========================

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Angus had returned to Massachusetts where he was staying at Hack’s house, which had become their center of operations. He had been to New York City and had spoken to the NYPD’s cybercrimes unit. They had reviewed Bianca’s findings with the sergeant there who had agreed that, yes, they might have something. To go ahead, however, they had to get the court to force Twitter and Facebook to reveal identities that they normally would not wish to reveal. That would take money, and not a little time.

But Angus solved that problem with a call to his employer, Steve Dwyer. Steve’s extensive business holdings in the U.S. had made him quite a few contacts and his money seemed limitless. Steve said he would get his lawyers working on an emergency injunction immediately, and to sit tight back in Massachusetts awaiting instructions.

Angus could sit tight with the best of them. Particularly in the company of a very good Scottish single malt whisky. He had developed an abiding interest in the Speyside whisky brands, including Cragganmore, Fettercairn, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Mortlach, and Speyburn. Mmmm. And Hack was a good man to hang out with.

Angus poured a few fingerfuls, no ice, and sat back on Hack’s couch. “Hack, we’ve not much to do now, have we? We’ll have to hope and pray the damn lawyers can pull through on this one.”

Hack nodded. “True. And that’s what worries me.”

“Well, I’m sure Dwyer’s got some good ones.”

“Are there good ones then? Was unaware of that fact.”

“Hah, that’s funny, Hack. Have a bit of me Speyside, will ye?”

Hack didn’t just then, but against the onslaught of Angus’ whisky-fueled bonhomie, he broke down eventually. And so it was that eight years of sober living went glug-glug.

=========================

Back at the sanitarium, John stared at Bianca. “So you think she went willingly, but something’s gone wrong with the plan and now she’s being held against her will?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“You started by saying you had a lead. What is it?”

“Well, in order to track someone on social media, you really have to know them. We brought in Sam and had extensive interviews with him about her interests, how she acted, what internet sites she frequented, how she talked and wrote, that kind of thing. We had a ton of data. We quickly realized that the fashion world was too big and with minimal time we would be better off focusing on squash, so that’s what we did. Anything and everything about squash, we saw. Nothing seemed to click, but then a few days ago we had a tweet and a Facebook posting that told us something. Check these out.”

Bianca passed two papers over to John with a big, American, perfectly white and nicely orthodontured smile. “The breakthrough boils down to one word: Weetabix. See, this is a tweet from someone named ‘Alexivan’, who says: ‘My secret weetabix girl played a hard match and rocked. Maybe, if she’s good, we’ll reveal her to the world!’ And then here’s a Facebook page, owned by the anonymous ‘Asquashpro,’ who said this: ‘Had a good workout today with a talented client whose squash gets better and better. She is a fiery competitor, fueled by great squash instincts and her favorite food, weetabix. She’s ready for top competition.’ Well, we did our research, and those IP addresses are coming from the New York area. And Weetabix, your daughter’s favorite whole wheat biscuit cereal treat, is not at all common in those parts. We are convinced those two messages are about your Jessica.”

“Wow. Who knew?” said John. “Call me crazy but I always hated the stuff.... Thank heaven for Weetabix."



Chapter TEN by Peter Heywood

Scene 1


The match at the Heliopolis Club went into a fifth game, Gamal levelling with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner.

Weston left the court to towel down, take a drink and reflect on the state of play, and on the state of his body. His three month sabbatical, enforced by the medics back in London, still had two weeks to run. In the beginning, an old friend had fixed him up with a villa in Barbados where he’d been able to swim and snorkel most of the day before eating dinner, prepared by the housekeeper, on the terrace overlooking the sea. He’d drunk no alcohol, read, and retired to bed early with only a painkiller for company.

But then, he’d felt the need for some recreation, something with an edge, something  competitive. So he’d come back to part of the world where he’d spent so much of his time in the service on assignment. Somewhere, despite recent political upheavals, where he felt comfortable, connected with history, alive.

Here, in Cairo, he’d kept up a fitness regimen to maybe seventy-five per cent of his potential. Swimming, running and weights at the club, with the occasional game of tennis, and now squash with an old friend and his former squash coach. Gamal was now in his early fifties, but was still more than a match for him.

They resumed their match, watched from the balcony by some youngsters whose parents, he reflected, obviously had the money and the connections, for them to be there. Weston started the stronger, keeping his opponent to the back of the court, but then tired as Gamal’s superior powers of deception began to take their toll. It was their third match in as many weeks but now, he sensed, he was getting closer.

Showered and changed, they sat by the pool drinking iced tea and watching the sun set over  the city. They talked business, politics. Then family. Gamal’s family. Weston had none. At least that was his story.

‘So how’s that nephew of yours?’ he said, switching to Arabic. ‘The squash player?’

‘Ah, a fine boy,’ said his squash partner with pride. ‘And a fine coach too. But  now, I hear so little from him and see him even less. He left home over a year ago to work abroad. Always on the move, my friend. So many places around the world.’ He paused. ‘Do you know, the last my sister heard from him, he was coaching squash on a yacht somewhere. Can you imagine that? On a yacht!’

Weston smiled and lifted his face towards the setting sun.

When they’d finished their drinks, they picked up their bags and racquet cases and walked towards the reception area.

‘Same time next week, Jim?’ said Gamal.

‘Yes Gamal’ said Weston. ‘Why not.’

He left his playing partner and walked out into the early evening heat.

‘Taxi, Mr. Faulks?’ asked the concierge.

Weston nodded.


Scene 2

Later, in his room at the hotel, Weston retrieved his cellphone from the safe. It displayed a solitary text message from an unidentified number. It read simply: ‘Call Global Trading. Urgent.’

He took a second ‘phone from the safe and connected it to a small electronic device taken from his racquet case. He keyed in a number from memory and listened. There was a click and then a low hum on the line as he heard the call being diverted.
 
At last, he heard the voice – precise, distant but unmistakable – of the person he most respected in the world.

‘Weston?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘The party’s over.’

 ‘But, I thought –‘

‘One of our sales force is reporting exceptional activity.’

‘Where?’

‘In the Gulf, although imports from the US are looking up as well.’

‘What about my sabbatical? It doesn’t end until –‘

‘To hell with your sabbatical. I need you on the first flight to Dubai tomorrow. Got that?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

The line went dead.

Next week’s match at the Heliopolis Club was most definitely off.


Scene 3

The following afternoon, Weston found himself sitting in the Dubai offices of Global Trading awaiting the appearance of Dan Thorpe. A stencilled sign on the glass door read ‘Mr. D. R. Thorpe, Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’.

Weston had been ushered into Thorpe’s office, a scene of uncharacteristic disorder given the true role of its owner in the service. Now, looking from his third floor vantage point towards the Dubai skyline, he sipped at a glass of sweet tea and wondered what sales activity was about to be shared with him.

When he finally appeared, Thorpe looked much the same as ever, slightly dishevelled with dark hair greying at the temples and a stooped posture as he walked towards Weston, hand outstretched. They exchanged pleasantries before sitting opposite each other across Thorpe’s desk.

‘Sorry about the sabbatical, Jim’ said Thorpe. ‘Duty calls, eh?’

Weston gave a wry smile and relaxed into his chair.

‘A week ago, our cousins across the pond shared some intelligence with London about someone they’ve been watching. Someone they believe may be about to take possession of a, shall we say, shipment intended for subsequent distribution – and, presumably, consumption - within the US. They don’t appear to know where the shipment will be handed over but experience suggests it will be at sea. Somewhere in the Caribbean.’

‘What has that got to do with Her Majesty’s Government?’ asked Weston.

‘I’m coming to that’ continued Thorpe. ‘The person the cousins have been watching has connections to someone that London believes could turn out to be a threat to our national security. Someone who, coincidentally, arrived in Dubai just over a fortnight ago.’
 
He leaned forward and pushed a manila folder across the desk towards Weston.

‘The man the cousins have been watching is called Ivanov. Viktor Ivanov. Born in St. Petersburg. In his mid-50s. Bit of a track record but hardly public enemy number one. That’s his photograph on top of the heap. He pretty much lives on his yacht, the Ekaterina. Registered in St. Petersburg naturally. It’s now in US territorial waters. As far as the cousins can tell, it got there via the Baltic, the North Sea, the Med, North Africa, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, stopping at at least a dozen ports, including London. Quite a holiday cruise – assuming that he’s on holiday of course.’

Weston looked the photograph of a thick-set balding man with a black goatee as Thorpe continued.

‘Ivanov has his family with him. More precisely, wife number three and two children – one from a previous marriage. That’s a picture of his wife, Maria. Looks like an archetypal  Russian good-time girl who’s seen better days but there’s something much more  interesting about her.’

Weston looked at the picture. It showed a plump, bleached blonde woman in her late 40s, perhaps, wearing a flowered smock. She was standing at what looked like a ship’s rail.

‘Which is?’

‘She’s the elder sister of this man.’

Thorpe pointed out the third photograph.

‘Anatole Grigoriev. Also from Petersburg. And the person we believe now controls the opium trade routes from Northern Afghanistan through Iran and the former Soviet republics.’

Weston picked up the photograph. It showed a clean-shaven athletic-looking man with short dark hair. He was wearing a white shirt and slacks and was sitting under a parasol, holding a cocktail glass up to the camera.

‘He looks a happy soul,’ said Weston.

‘He should be,’ answered Thorpe, ‘Considering the amount of money he must be making. But there’s just one problem. Grigoriev doesn’t just have aspirations to control the global drugs trade. He wants to destroy the West. It appears to be personal, for some reason. That’s what HMG is panicking about. London believes that whatever Ivanov is up to is just a side-show. Grigoriev is the one who pulls the strings. And now he’s sitting in a penthouse suite over at the Burj Khalifa Hotel.’

Weston shrugged.

‘I suppose it makes sense,’ he commented. ‘Big Russian community to provide  cover. The cousins not exactly popular in the area for obvious reasons. Just us honest British businessmen left to see fair play.’

‘That’s where you come in,’ said Thorpe.

‘London wants you to find out what Grigoriev’s up to. Whatever happens in the cousins’ backyard isn’t our concern. But how Grigoriev responds most definitely is. And you may just have a way of reaching him. Take a look at the fourth photograph.’

Weston picked it out of the folder. It showed an attractive young woman playing tennis at what he suspected was the Burj Khalifa Sports Club. Long legs, high cheekbones and a pretty good-looking double-fisted backhand by the look of it. She was wearing a white visor with her blonde hair pulled into a pony-tail.

‘Grigoriev’s younger sister, Tatiana’ said Thorpe. ‘Rather different from his older one  I think you’ll agree?’

Weston nodded and placed the photograph back in the folder.

‘She certainly has friends here,’ continued Thorpe ‘But seems to spend a lot of her time in sports clubs. Money no object, of course. Tennis, swimming, golf, even the odd game of squash, you’ll be pleased to hear. Speaks four languages that we know of, all of which, coincidentally, you speak fluently. I’m sure you’re more than capable of engineering a casual meeting?’

When Weston had left for his hotel, Thorpe closed his office door and picked up the telephone. He pressed the scrambler and heard the familiar click and hum.

‘Thorpe?’

‘Yes, ma’am. He’s just left.’

A question.

‘No, ma’am, he doesn’t know anything about the runaway on Ivanov’s yacht. Or the private investigators.’

‘Good. Thank you, Thorpe’

He hung up.


Scene 4

It was early evening at the Burj Khalifa Sports Club.

Weston timed his walk past the table by the pool to coincide with that of the white-coated waiter. At an opportune moment, he moved sharply out of the waiter’s path, knocking into the table and upsetting the cocktail glass standing on it. The glass hit the floor with a satisfying crash.

‘Oh, how clumsy of me!’ he exclaimed, turning to the young woman sitting there.

‘I beg your pardon, madam,’ said the waiter on cue, making to pick up the broken glass.

Weston turned towards him and spoke quickly in Arabic.

‘Please get the lady a replacement, Hassan, and charge it to my account.’

The woman spoke in accented English as Weston turned back towards her. ‘Please don’t concern yourself. It was a simple accident.’

By this time, Hassan had abandoned the glass and scuttled away on his highly lucrative errand.

‘Please. I insist. It was completely my fault, Miss - ?’ said Weston, this time in Russian.

She smiled.

‘Grigorieva. Tatiana Grigorieva.’

He extended his hand.

‘My names Faulks. Jim Faulks.’

She hesitated, took it and answered. In Russian this time.

‘You speak very good Russian for an Englishman Mr. Faulks. Are you a member here?’

‘Jim. Yes.’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘Yes. I arrived in Dubai only recently.’

‘Then I insist on helping you feel at home’ he offered. ‘Tell me. Do you play any games, Miss Grigorieva?’

She laughed.

‘Tatiana. Yes, Mr. Faulks. I do play games.’

She looked into his eyes.

‘In fact, I happen to be very good at them.’



Chapter ELEVEN by Ted Gross

"I see what you mean, a couple of damn drunks," said Davis Barker, the Aullt Academy student behavior specialist. "You hungry, kid?"

"Of course, if you are, sir," said Sam, who had barely had any appetite since the fateful "Sammie, it's me!" call from his sister two weeks ago.

Barker hung a left out of Hack's driveway and no one said anything until they were squared away in the corner booth of the Honeycomb Diner on Route 21.

"What I don't get," said Barker, wolfing down his chicken-fried steak and eggs, "is they claim they are in a waiting mode, but what are they waiting FOR?"

"Apparently, sir, according to Mum's boyfriend Steve--"

"School's out for Christmas vacation Sam, call me Barker. Everyone does."

"Really? Thank you. Presumably they are waiting for Steve's lawyers to get information from Facebook and Twitter that might pertain to my sister.  When I phoned Mr. Murray yesterday he confirmed that. He said they were sitting tight at the moment. As I mentioned to you, though, his speech seemed impaired."

"Fuck that, sitting tight!" Barker's head snapped forward as he said it, and an egg bit flew off his lip. "Goddamn rummies with their slippers on, watching Texas A&M and Oregon State in the Outback Bowl. The place smelled like a wretched doctor's office."

"Excuse me sir, what bowl?"

"Barker. Ah, dumb college football games. American football. About a hundred of them on TV between now and New Year's. Hack's probably even taught Angus the rules by now."

"I did attend one of our matches in October but had trouble understanding much of it. My roommate was in the marching band."

"Kid, you're better off. I got a hundred on Oregon State to cover and I couldn't help notice at Hack's they were down."

"Excuse me?"

"Not important. What about your trip back home?"

Sam picked at his uneaten blueberry muffin. The last ten days of the semester had been brutal. He had been sailing along, in many ways enjoying the most rewarding three months of his life, and then the call from Jessica right in the stretch run, smack in the middle of Holy Week. 

Mr. Barker, along with Mr. Nowe, the headmaster, had met with Sam and suggested he consider withdrawing from school and finishing the semester on an independent-study basis when he felt ready. But Sam decided that staying busy was best, so he carried on despite this overwhelming distraction and handled his final exams and presentations surprisingly well, though he did blow his Latin final.

"I'm thinking this may not be the best circumstance in which to return to London," Sam said. 

"I hear you, kid, nothing to celebrate this Christmas, that's for sure."

"I thought instead I'd maybe go to New York, have a look around. A mate from the squash team, you probably know him, Nestor Geiberger? He says I can stay with him and his family."

Barker took his time with this one. The same thought had been unfortunately rattling around in his head for the past hour--now that it was clear that Hack and the British PI were useless--that he, himself, should head down to the city and try to somehow look for Jessica. After all, he grew up in Woodside, Queens, and his own sister Nadine was married to a cop in Astoria, and just maybe someone could talk to someone who knew something about this unlikely case that he was pretty convinced now the kid wasn't making up.

It was the right thing to do, but it would screw up all his plans. He had begun dating a lovely long-legged auburn-haired woman named Vanessa, who was fresh out of college and had just completed her first term teaching English at the public high school. Barker and Vanessa were set to drive up to Stowe on Friday for a few days of skiing and whatever, to see where the relationship might go.

"Sam, New York's a tricky place, not like here. Or anywhere. Let's don't be stupid."

"I mean, after the lady interviewed me, I  at least held onto a bit of hope. But it's clearly gone nowhere!"

"Wait a minute, what lady?"

"The lady from the newspaper. Steve and Mr. Murray hired her to help with the investigation."

"Jesus," said Barker, looking out the window now, picturing the green streak in the blonde hair, and that amazing first time with Bianca. "I didn't know about that."

"But no one's DOING anything!" Sam said, and he began sobbing, one of the first real cries he allowed himself since Jessie's disappearance all those months ago.  

Barker let him go, and then said finally, "It's okay, kid. I'm with you."


Chapter TWELVE by Mick Joint

Alexi Ivanov watched with contempt as Jessica went through her paces with Aman. She was in the middle of a torturous ghosting session that would cripple a normal human being, lunging from corner to corner as if her life depended on it. And in a way, it did.

She had suddenly become a liability. His indignation towards this girl grew by the day. And for a number of reasons. Firstly, because she was a lot better squash player than Nikki. Not that Alexi cared very much for the sport, but family is family and even he could see that Jess was miles ahead in not just talent, but in attitude and determination as well. She tried. Hard. Even now, while Jess was spitting up a lung working on her footwork and fitness, Nikki was lounging on the lower deck sipping a cocktail and working on her fingernails instead.

Secondly, for being blindsided and cracked in the skull by a forehand smash which knocked him out cold for several minutes and left him with a concussion that still lingered with the occasional headache. The scar was still there, albeit hidden underneath his thick black hair. His father, Viktor Ivanov, was relentless about poking fun at him that he was beaten up by a teenage girl half his size. That, of course, enraged him even more.

Thirdly, and this one bothered him the most, was how she managed to find the phone number to call her brother in that school dorm room in Massachusetts. Alexi despised not being able to understand his surroundings and not being in control, and he simply couldn’t figure this one out. When he regained consciousness from the blow to the head, it wasn’t long until he found her hiding behind a lifeboat, on a cell phone and blurting out, “Sammy, it’s me. I’m in New York, you’ve GOT to help me!” before he managed to yank her roughly out of her recess, snatch the phone away, and backhand her violently across the mouth, cutting her lip. After locking her up in her cabin, he redialled the number on the phone to hear a young voice answer “Ault Academy, Webster Hall Dormitory” before immediately hanging up. Simple research had revealed she had notified a member of her family that she was alive and in trouble. And that meant people will be looking for her. He had demanded to know how she came by the number as he was sure someone on the boat was helping her get information. Accusing anyone on the yacht of being a traitor without any proof was not a smart move and Alexi was forced to look at everyone with suspicious eyes which did not make him any happier. Jess was nothing if not stubborn and even the vilest of threats yielded zero progress.

It was a major problem. Especially in the business the Ivanov family was involved in. They lived the highly luxurious lifestyle they had become accustomed to through the dealings of special ‘merchandise’ to a very demanding society in the Americas. It was the reason they were still currently anchored in the New York harbour. Deliveries were being made, the majority of them to arrogant wealthy Wall Street pricks. Repulsive characters that played with other peoples fortunes affecting the livelihood of millions of people all over the world. Alexi adored selling his product to such assholes. They paid exorbitant amounts of money to get high, considered themselves rulers of the free world although they were utterly clueless about the real one, and couldn’t help themselves from spiralling out of control. When things went bad, the first phone call they would make would be to his family. The Ivanovs owned them. And over the past couple years, business has been spectacular. Jessica now threatened that existence. If she was discovered on the boat, they would be finished. He couldn’t just let her go either as she would certainly blab her story to the world. His father had given him a simple instruction: “deal with her... before she overpowers you again”. Viktor was a ruthless business man. Alexi knew what he meant, and even though he was in a cutthroat occupation, he had never dealt with anybody before.

Alexi pondered his options. Way too much time had passed. He had been procrastinating with a decision and the longer they waited, the riskier things became. He knew the cell phone Jessica used to call Sam was untraceable and it would be a while before the authorities would be able to get a lead, if they could find one at all. Pressure from his father was forcing him to act. Either he did something or Viktor would.

Initially, he kept his now new prisoner under lock and key 24 hours a day. He did not want her outside her room. But it was like keeping a lion in a cage. Without being able to expend energy and from pure boredom, Jess would continually destroy her surroundings, throwing, breaking and smashing everything that wasn’t nailed down. She was a human tornado. A tenuous agreement was then made and to keep Jess at a relatively obedient level, he still allowed her to play squash and take lessons with Aman and also get match practice in with Nikki. Since it was the only time Jess was permitted outside of her cabin, she trained like a demon, for hours a day, using it as a release and her squash benefited from it enormously. There was nothing else for her to do. Otherwise she was confined to quarters where one of his “henchman” as Jessica referred to him, would stand guard outside her door. She also demanded Weet-a-bix for breakfast every morning, a product not so easy to find in New York and, Alexi thought, tasted horrible as well. But in order to stop the destruction of the yacht, he relented.

Alexi started thinking about money. He knew Jessica’s family had won the lottery and thoughts of ransom crept back into his mind. He recalled – before being clobbered – that he had been planning on phoning her father with demands for her safe return. Maybe he could receive a decent payout for all this trouble after all. He had no intentions of handing her over when (if) the ransom was paid. He suddenly made up his mind. He would take the money and do her in anyway. He took his cell phone and decided to call her mother instead. She would be bound to be more emotionally involved and more likely to pay up. He dialled the Vale Squash Club.

­­­­­_______________________________________


“What the Hell is this!?” demanded Jill as she slammed the invoice down on the front counter knocking over a pile of Vale Squash Club event flyers all over the floor.

Frank started to make his way to pick them up.

“Leave it!” scolded Jill. “80 bloody pounds for an electrician! 80 pounds! And what did he do? Changed a light bulb. One damn light bulb. You called an electrician to come in to change out one fucking light bulb?” Jill was losing it. Big time.

“Just what the Hell do I hire you for? Your looks? Charm? Sense of fucking humour? Am I laughing? Explain to me, you complete and total moron, why you called this guy and why I shouldn’t take it off your pay?”

Luckily, the club was empty. This was not a scene that any member would be wanting to witness. Jill was breathing fire trying her utmost not to rip Frank’s head off. Her patience with him had clearly worn out. Even though Steve had purchased the club, negotiations with Avery Wilburforce still proved difficult. She didn’t understand one iota why Steve had agreed to keep Frank on. Avery insisted that the club wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been for him and the least Steve could do to thank him was to retain his brother-in-law’s services. Steve didn’t want to waste time on the issue so they came to a quick compromise of keeping Frank on a trial basis for 6 months, after which if any party was still unhappy they could part ways. Jill almost convulsed in fury when she heard of the deal. Steve reasoned that at most, they would be rid of Frank in 6 months without any fuss. She’d certainly be bringing this up with Steve later today.

“Didn’t want to take no chances”, mumbled Frank. “You know, electrical stuff and all, can get kind of dangerous”. He was a little scared of his boss right now, but he enjoyed it tremendously when she blew a gasket and lately he had been going out of his way to cause her distress. This latest effort was one of his best yet.

“You’re a God damn handyman! That’s your job! A retarded baboon can change a light bulb. I’m taking this off your next check. The way you’re going, you are going to owe me money at the end of the month. And in case you have forgotten, because I only remind you five times a day, you still haven’t taken care of those bloody hedges in my parking spot. Any chance of taking care of that before the sun burns out?”

“As soon as I’m done with me coffee break. It’s 11 am and I need a little rest”, said Frank with an upbeat tone he knew would push Jill closer to the cliff edge.

“A rest? A rest?” Jill repeated herself half screaming the words. “You arrived less than an hour ago. Un-fucken-believable!” She searched for more insults to throw at him but she was at the end of her rope. Her brain switched off with the rabid rage she was feeling and she couldn’t think of anything else to say. To avoid committing a homicide, Jill marched out of the front door to get some fresh air and try to calm her nerves. She would call Steve immediately.

Frank smiled. “Take that, you bitch”, he muttered to himself. He had no plans to go anywhere near the hedge today or any other day. He thought about hiring a gardener to do the job, but it gave him immense pleasure watching Jill Smith get her knickers in a wad on a daily basis. He knew his tenure at the Vale Club was on its final stretch. When his brother-in-law announced to him that he had succeeded in saving his job – at least for the time being – when Mr. Steve-I’m-So-Perfect-Dwyer took over ownership, he wanted to throw up. “I got you a 6 month probation”, Avery declared as if he had negotiated world peace. “I expect you to do your job and not to let me down”. The bastard. Frank wanted nothing more than to never have anything to do with this establishment ever again. Knowing that peace with Jill would be impossible, he had decided from day one of his probation that his goal in life was to make her life as miserable as possible. He simply did not care anymore. The front desk phone started to ring.

He knew that if Jill caught him answering the phone, she may very well shove it down his throat, but the opportunity was too juicy to pass up. If it was a member, he was very capable of screwing up the court reservation, and succeeding in getting them pissed off at Jill too. He picked up the receiver. “Vale Squash Club”.

“Yes. Hello. I was looking for Mrs. Jill Smith... please.”

“The bitch ain’t here”, spat out Frank before he could catch himself. Just the mention of her name made him react aggressively.

“Excuse me?” said Alexi, surprised at the retort.

“Um, err, sorry. I mean Mrs. Smith isn’t here. Did you want a court? I’d be happy to do that for you”, said Frank, now flustered and suddenly a little nervous.

“No, I’m not calling to play squash. Look, I have an extremely important business proposal for her. One that I guarantee will peak her utmost interest. It is most urgent I speak to her.”

Frank couldn’t believe his ears. Was this another rich ex-boyfriend of hers wanting to ride in on a white stallion, sweep the bitch of her feet, buy the club and save the day? How many fellas did she sleep with, anyway? “Sorry, buddy, you’re too late. Club was recently purchased by some other rich bozo, who by the way is now also stuffing her bun oven if you know what I mean.” Frank couldn’t help himself. He could not, for the life of him, say a friendly word about Jill – even to a complete stranger on the phone.

Frank continued. “Yeah. A Mr. Steve Dwyer rocks up in his fancy red Ferrari – maybe you know him - flashes his wallet and perfectly quaffed hair, and she just opens right up, let’s him in her life, the club, and her pants. God, the guy is something out of a Hollywood spy movie. Rich, good-looking, successful, intelligent... type of guy you can’t help but want to punch in the mouth.”

“Fascinating,” whispered Alexi taking all this in. His mind was ticking a hundred miles an hour. “Just as a matter of interest, what does Mr. Smith think about all this?”

“That jerk? Complete loser. Wife chucked him out after their daughter disappeared. Turned to drugs, alcohol, hookers, and God knows what else. Went nuts. Spent time in the loony bin. In fact, he recently turns up here out of the blue and starts beating up some old guy. I kicked his ass. Saved the guy’s life. Police called me a hero.” Frank was practically pounding on his own chest.

Alexi formed an idea. “And who might you be?”

“Name’s Frank. I’m the handyman. Do all the odd jobs. If it weren’t for me, this place would be a pile of rubble. Constantly fixing up all the screw-ups around here.” Frank actually said like he believed it.

“Well, Frank. Nice to make your acquaintance. Sounds like you have some personal issues with your superiors. I could help you out with that if you like. In fact, we could help each other. I need a little information, and if you get me that information, I can give you money. You need money, Frank? It could be your lucky day. Think of me as your lucky leprechaun.” It was a risky statement. Alexi was going for the throat, but the way Frank was going he was likely to cough up anything he requested.

“You don’t sound Irish to me. More American like.” Frank had no idea. He was guessing.

“Sure. American.  All I need from you, Frank, is Steve Dwyer’s phone number. Think you could pass that on? You do that for me, and I’ll give you two thousand bucks. Easiest money you’ll ever make, deal?”

“Sure. Deal. Happy to do it. Hold the line, I’ll get the number for you.” Frank placed the receiver on the front desk and raced into the office. He had to be quick, he obviously did not want Jill to re-enter the club before he was done. He saw Jill’s purse hanging off the back of the chair, opened it up and rummaged around for her wallet. She would surely have Steve’s number written down somewhere.

“Damn women’s purse,” he grumbled. Jill’s purse was choc-o-bloc full of crap. Frank couldn’t believe what was in there. He pulled out earrings, lipsticks, a half eaten candy bar, a handful of loose tampons, a spoon, used tissues, a spare pair of knickers (hopefully clean), and a copy of ‘50 Shades of Grey’. “Why am not surprised,” he snarled. He found the wallet underneath the novel and sure enough Steve’s business card was right there amongst the cash. He took the item along with a 20 pound note for good measure, re-stocked the purse and rushed back to the phone.

“Okay. Got it. You ready?” Frank passed on the information.

“You’re a champ. You have no idea how much I appreciate it”, said Alexi.

“No problem. Now about the two grand?” asked Frank.

“Oh yeah, your money. Well, there’s a slight issue there.”

“What do you mean, slight issue?”

“I’m not giving it to you”, replied Alexi and he hung up.


_______________________________________


“Steve Dwyer speaking”, said Steve irritably as he answered his cell phone driving towards the squash club in his Ferrari. He had just gotten off the phone with an irate Jill, who was swearing up a storm about Frank. He had never heard the f-word so often in one conversation, nor had he any idea there were so many uses for it. He knew not firing Frank would cause problems, but not like this. Steve was about to do something he rarely did in business: break a promise. The deal with Avery Wilburforce was off. Frank was currently working his final hour.

“Hello Mr. Dwyer, listen very carefully. I am only going to say this once.” Alexi felt like he was in a movie. Very cliché. “The safe return of Jessica Smith will cost you 2 million dollars. You have 48 hours to get the money together by which time I will contact you with information of where to wire the money. If you ask any questions, she dies. If you call the police, she dies. If you don’t get the money together, she dies. If you don’t answer my call, she dies. If you answer my next question with anything but ‘yes’, she dies. Is that clear Mr. Dwyer?”

“Yes”, said Steve, completely stunned at what he was listening to.

The line went dead.


Chapter THIRTEEN by Will Gens

“John Smith, John Smith, what are we going to do with you?" To which John answered, "I don'tknow, how about I down you in the next hour or so and that ought to shut you up...what would you think of that, mother fucker?" The bottle of Scotch was opposite him at the table; he hadn't touched the stuff in months, and had promised Bianca, the snappy news reporter helping to find his missing Jessica, that he wouldn't. He grew to hate that bottle only because he wanted it so much, the memory of Jessica, and Bianca insisting he remain clear-headed. Sober and out of emotional Sing-Sing was incentive enough, but somewhere in the back of his mind he thought that he could put the shattered pieces of his family’s lives back together again.
 
He missed Sam, achingly so, thousands of miles away, he needed Sam here...he needed Jill here too, he didn't care how or why but he was going to get her back. "Sorry, my friend, I'm going to have to do it without you, as much as I hate that," he smiled, proud that another close call with his Scotch friend had come and gone. He hoisted an empty shot glass, "Bottoms up!"
 
John must have dozed off because the chimes of his cell indicating a voicemail woke him out of a troubled sleep, his neck hurt too because he fell asleep awkwardly on the second-hand love seat, which he had garnered from the alley behind his building -- discarded (and no doubt for good reason), it smelled a bit of urine, cat urine, but he couldn't prove it, doing his best to douse it in rubbing alcohol. He used to tell his kids when he was cleaning the house and Jill was at the club, "Alcohol will kill any bacteria, it smells good – ah, tastes even better -- and it's good for the
environment." Their house always smelled like the hallways in a hospital, the kids used to make fun of him if they made a mess, "Nurse dad, get the swab and alcohol."
 
He fumbled a bit with the cell log and didn't recognize the incoming call, thought twice, and went to his voicemail. "John, this is Bianca, John, where the fuck are you, pick up...it's Jessica, I mean it's a lead, a big time lead, I need you to call me back ASAP...shit, I hope you aren't passed out. John, please tell me you didn't…"

  "John, what the hell, are you sober, clear-headed?”

     "Yes, Bianca, as a judge, but what is the lead, cut this other crap, what do you have?" 

     "Okay", her heart raced, she tried to catch her breath, “I received this very strange email from a Mr. Chander Sivilingam, out of Chennai, India." 

    "Bianca, Chennai, India, what does this have to do with Jessica!" he shouted. 

    "John, I'm getting to that, don't interrupt..." John eyed the bottle of Scotch, he was really unnerved, he thought, a quick shot or two could really steady him. But he snapped to his mantra (sober, clear-headed and ready).

    “Mr. Sivilingam owns a very successful outsourcing technology company in Chennai, India, which is in South India about four hours’ flight from Dubai. 

    "What is outsourcing?” John asked.

    "It's when companies, big companies, pay cheaper prices to have their technology developed and maintained for a fraction of the cost for doing it onsite in the UK or the US. Mr. Sivilingam was one of the early players and built a mega firm that has 30,000 employees billing at around five billion pounds per year!"

    "Okay", said John, waiting for more. 

    "So he said he read about Jessica's disappearance in the papers, he usually doesn't read the English papers, but he happened to be at the Chennai Cricket Club one morning, eating his usual 15 yokeless hard-boiled eggs, I think he's a health nut, and there was a British couple there as guests of one of the members, and he overheard them talking about this missing girl and how it baffled police and investigators...when they left, they left the paper on the table and he picked it up and started reading it." She paused "I haven't gotten to the best part...so he's reading it and he told me later that his blood went cold, literally ice cold, he--" 

    "What do you mean?" John interrupted.

    "Just wait, give me time to explain it then you can ask questions, trust me you won't believe it." She added, "I didn't at first believe it." She continued, "Anyways, his voice was quite shaken when he called me and said he read the story in the Mirror and the case seemed almost identical to his daughter's case four years ago." She added quickly, "Of course my first question to him was how did he get my number and how did he know I was involved in the case? To which he replied, and I quote, ‘I have many international business connections, including significant ones in Dubai, UK and the US...it didn't take me long. But to put your mind at rest, I can give you some references in Dubai, the UK and the US.’ John, he dropped some names at Scotland Yard and the FBI. I didn't check Dubai, and someone named Jim Folks or Faulks -- couldn't get a hold of him, but the others at Scotland Yard and FBI knew Mr. Sivilingam and vouched for him.

     John shot back, "What does he mean, his daughter's case!?" 

    "John, I'm getting to that, hang on, I have another call coming in, and it’s from Mr. Sivilingam." 

    The phone went dead, "Damn," said John.

He tried calling Bianca back it went straight to voicemail, he heard the beep, his battery was dying. "Shit, shit, shit", he yelped as he stubbed his toe on that infernal love seat that smelled like urine as he went for the charger behind it. He stood by there as far as the charge could reach, and thinking that he had to get rid of this loveseat, it really does smell like cat urine. 15 minutes went by as he waited, eying the Scotch, his mind racing: Jessica, Jessica, what could be the connection?
 
    His cell chimed, he answered it immediately, not checking who it was, "Jill! What, I can't hear you…Steve and what...you're breaking up?...Call me later." He noticed an incoming call from Bianca and it crossed his mind that Jill was calling him awfully late. 

   "John, I have Mr. Sivilingam conferenced in. Mr. Sivilingam, are you there?" 

   He responded distantly, with an ever so slight hint of South Indian accent, "Yes, I am here. Mr. Smith? I hope I haven't caused you undue alarm, it wasn't my intention. But I felt it my duty to contact you and Ms. Bianca because your case, from what I read in the paper, is so strikingly similar to what happened to my daughter...Mr. Smith, are you there?" 

   John slowly responded, "Mr. Sivi-Sivi…" 

   "Sivilingam" Mr. Sivilingam finished for him, "Mr. Chander Sivilingam, President and CEO of Universal Outsourcing, LTD located in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, with offices in London and New York."
 
    "Mr. Sivilingam, please tell John what you told me,” Bianca said. "John, just listen, questions later,” she added.
 
    Mr. Sivilingam proceeded to explain how his then 13-year-old daughter was an avid squash player who trained out of a Chennai institute run by a renowned coach of Indian squash, Syrill Sancha. She was quite good but a bit of a hot-head, especially in tournaments..."


Mr. Sivilingam's voice faltered, John noticed and he wondered if she was still alive. Mr. Sivilingam sort of gathered himself a bit and continued, "She was playing in a tournament at the Institute and there were junior players from all over, a big tournament. Her ‘nanny,’ Vidya Suriya, a most diligent woman who helped raise -- sorry, my daughter's name is Shamini -- raised her from the time she was a baby, took her as she always did to the tournaments. After her second-round match, which she won, she went to the locker room and simply vanished.”

    John had to interrupt. "Is she okay, is SHE OKAY, Mr. Sivilingam, I need to know, 'cause if they hurt her and they are the same people….”

    Bianca jumped in, "John, just let him finish, she's alive and at home with them but there's more."

 
--------------------------------------------
 
It was 5:00 in the morning by the time John got off the call with Bianca and Mr. Sivilingam, his mind racing. He had to find his passport. "Where the fuck is the passport? I can never find this stuff, I swear if God lets me fix all of this and my family is safe, I will change, I will change this -- entire damn…Jill, I’ve got to call Jill." He pressed the return call on her number and it rang, her voicemail picked up....he paused, thinking of her in a sexy negligee in the arms of Steve, Steve the home wrecker, the bastard. He shook that from his head, “C'mon, focus,” and left Jill a cryptic message.

   "Jill, some big lead on Jessica, I'm going to track it down…”  He stopped himself, something told him don't give the whereabouts, don't give her too many details, she had a right to know, but Steve, Steve he didn't trust and besides Steve would usurp him and somehow claim the heroics. John was only thinking about Jessica. He dashed off a quick email to Sam, Sam, he didn't even know where Sam was, something about New York.
 
------------------------
 
He and Bianca settled into the first-class British Airways seats, compliments of Mr. Sivilingam. "John, this is crazy isn't it, what if there is a connection to his daughter's case?" 

    He seemed lost in his own world as he stared out the window while the plane was taxiing to the runway. “I need some sleep, I need my friend, Mr. Scotch, or maybe some of those small little jigger relatives of his, what I wouldn't do for a double and a cube of ice,” he thought as he closed his eyes. Bianca was a nervous flier and furiously thumbed through the airline merchandise catalogue, not really stopping to check anything out, just furiously flipping through the pages.
 
--------------------------
 
They had an eight-hour layover in Dubai before flying on to Chennai. Mr. Sivilingam had arranged for them to clean up in one of the very elegant and posh spas in the airport. "Bianca," John said, "This guy must have a lot of pull." 

    "Yeah", said Bianca. "He seems like he's on the up and up.” 

    "Let's hope so," John added. 

    "The shower, steam and massage will feel great,” Bianca said as she looked at John. “You holding up okay?”

    “Yeah, I’m okay, need some food I think and a stiff…“ 

    “John! Don’t even think it, if we get through this and we find her, I promise I’ll take you out and get you shit-faced with the best Scotch on the planet.”

    While John was waiting for Bianca to get her massage, he got out his lap top, connected to the airport Wi-Fi and Googled Chander Sivilingam. He was quite stunned; there was a lot about his business, then a lot about his daughter’s disappearance, then some amazing articles about Shamini Sivilingam and her squash. She was a squash phenomenon, known throughout India, nothing short of miraculous. He couldn’t believe what he read over and over: “ShaminiSivilingam, blind squash player, wins again.” “Blind Girl Defies Squash Reality” – why hadn’t anyone in the UK mentioned her. Blind squash, is this something out of science fiction? Then John thought, “Well, they have blind golf. He read how the girl had been a rising star before a
terrible accident four years ago had blinded her.

    A tune came into his head John hummed that “Pinball Wizard” song from the rock opera “Tommy”  by The Who – and then a thought panicked him about his own daughter: did the same people who had done that to Shamini plan to do that to Jessica as well? Bianca came bouncing out of the spa and snapped him out of those panicked thoughts -- they walked a bit before they were heralded by a smartly dressed limo driver and taken quickly through security into an awaiting black Mercedes.
 
“…But I ain't seen nothing like her
In any squash hall.
That -- blind kid
Sure plays a mean squash ball!”
 
John played it over in his head while they zipped through the streets of Dubai.


Chapter FOURTEEN by Tracy J. Gates

Bianca bounced the squash ball under her racquet in rapid succession, warming it up.

“Middle-aged guys are just so gullible,” she said, feeling the ball now to see if it was ready.

Her opponent nodded as she adjusted her blond ponytail. “Definitely,” she agreed. “They’re easily distracted. Although you’re particularly good at it,” she said, looking her up and down. 

Bianca looked down. She was wearing neon bright Flashpoint Asics, a hot pink skirt that matched the freshly dyed streak in her hair, and a Smith College t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. “Not my fault,” she replied. “Only the shirt is mine. Plus, you’re no doubt better. Nice dress.”

Tatiana readjusted the shoulder straps of her silver halter dress. “Well when you’re backing a sportswear designer, you should wear the product. All women run by the way.”

“Nice. Let’s hit, huh? I’m only here on a layover, remember.”

Tatiana grinned. “Right. Serve it up.”

Once the women warmed up, a few other club members stopped to watch their game. It was clear that they weren’t just there for exercise and with wrists precisely cocked, deep wall-hugging rails, and graceful movements around the court, it was evident that they weren’t amateurs either. Tatiana had great hands and moved the ball patiently around the court, while Bianca was the more aggressive of the two, cutting the ball off whenever she could and making overhead volley drops when she was well set up at mid-court. They were well matched, despite their differences in play. Tatiana got the first two games by outwitting her opponent’s athleticism, but Bianca caught on to her tactics by the third game and began mixing it up as well, holding her shots so that Tatiana was more off balance. It worked and they were tied at the end of the fourth game.

Tatiana toweled off her racquet handle before the fifth. “You’re not as rusty as you said you were,” she said. “Where are playing these days?”

“A boy’s boarding school near where I work. There are some pretty good players there. For guys,” Bianca added, winking.
 
Tatiana raised an eyebrow. “Speaking of. Should we check on where yours is?”

“Oh I told the staff to give him the works in the spa. I’m sure he’s dead asleep by now. He didn’t get much last night, thanks to your Mr. Sly Chennai.” Bianca stifled a yawn. “Then again, I didn’t either.”

“Yes, sorry about that. My brother does like to put on an accent and tell a good long yarn.” Tatiana yawned as well. “And your Mr. Smith must enjoy listening to one. We could barely get him off the phone. Let’s finish up before we both doze off. Plus, I need to fill you in a bit more.”

“Yeah, you do.” 

***

After a shower, Bianca wrapped a thick towel around her and tucked it so it held under one arm. She pulled on the glass door next to the row of marble sinks and a whoosh of steam swirled out and rolled across the ceiling. Bianca walked through the door and into an almost opaque cloud of steam. She couldn’t see a thing.

“Are you in here?”

Tatiana’s voice was somewhere ahead of her and to her right. “Yes, just walk in slowly. I’ve put my hand out.”

Bianca took a careful step, having no idea how large the room was, and saw the perfectly manicured fingernails of her friend reaching out to her. Even as a teenager, Tatiana had been immaculately polished and coiffed, Bianca recalled. They were unlikely friends when they met at the Junior tournaments and camps back in the late 90’s. Bianca Phipps, the scholarship kid with a chip on her shoulder, and Tatiana Grigorieva, the Russian princess—or so she looked. But both were outsiders, albeit on opposite sides, and when Bianca said a few words to her in Russian—thanks to her Ukrainian grandmother—they quickly joined sides. Bianca hadn’t seen that hand, however, for at least ten years. She put her out her own nail-bitten one and touched fingertips so that Tatiana could guide her in. 

“Here. Put your towel on the lower bench. I’m on the upper one,” Tatiana said. “Or I’ll make room up here,” she added.

“That’s okay,” Bianca said. It was seriously hot. She’d probably pass out on the upper one. She could make out Tatiana’s body now, or parts of it, through the thick steam. Bianca unwrapped her towel, spread it out on the lower bench, and lay down. She breathed the eucalyptus infused steam and closed her eyes. “So,” she said, “can we talk in here?”

“That’s why I suggested it,” said Tatiana. “Nobody to overhear us. Shall I start or you?”

“You,” said Bianca, stretching so that her toes just brushed the wall. ”Tell me everything.”

***

“Tell me again what you want to do?” Aman asked her.

Jessica Smith sat in front of him, stretching on the carpet next to the court. “I want to enter the Davenport Open. It’s in Philadelphia this weekend; you could enter me as a wild card.”

“And just how am I going to do that?” Aman looked at her like she was crazy, but she could also see the wheels turning. He had been trapped on the Ekaterina longer than her and a chance to get off the yacht was surely as tantalizing to him as it was to her.

“The whole family’s gone. For the weekend, at least. We must be able to get off without the staff knowing.” She bent at the waist, leaning over her outspread legs and caught the bottom of the couch, pulling her torso forward for a deeper stretch. She looked up at him. “Don’t you want to see how I measure up to other girls? Other women? Don’t you want to see how good a coach you are?”

Aman’s dark eyes stared into hers. “Jessica. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I don’t even know. And it’s not just with Alexi or his father. Someone else is controlling this boat. And the price of getting off is a lot steeper than getting on.”

Jessica took a breath. “What if we pay a price? I win the tournament. You win as coach. And we give them all the credit? It’s win-win-win!”

Die, die, die is more like it, Aman thought. He tipped his head back to gaze a the ceiling. “Let me think about it.”

Jessica  brought her legs together and jumped up. She grabbed a jump rope and started hopping on one foot as she spun the rope through the air. “I know I can win,” she told him. “Who practices more than I do?”

“Nobody,” Aman agreed. “Nobody.”

***

“Nobody knows how to clean up around here,” Jill Smith muttered to herself, picking up used towels left on the floor, on benches, and one hanging over an exercise machine as if it were a ghost. She dumped them all into a large container marked “USED TOWELS” and then went back for the plastic cups hiding in plain and not-so-plain sight. Replacing the water cooler with gleaming glass containers of cucumber and cantaloupe water was a nice gesture on Steve’s part to upscale the place, but she was starting to miss the good old b.y.o.w.b. days.

She was bringing a few pairs of unclaimed eye protectors, a set of car keys, and what looked to be the newest iphone left just outside court three over to the front desk to put in the lost-and-found box, when she heard Steve raise his voice from inside the office.

“Dubai! How am I supposed to get to Dubai by tonight?!”

Jill stopped midstep and instinctively went still. Steve wasn’t one to yell, so it had to be something pretty big. His voice went down, so Jill inched closer to the slightly open door and looked in. He was at his desk facing her and writing something down on a piece of paper. She ducked her head back so that he wouldn’t see her when he looked up. He preferred to keep his business dealings private.

“Well what if I can’t? What if I don’t?” He was whisper yelling now. Jill put her ear next to the doorframe.

"So that’s it then? I show up with the money, she lives. I don’t, she dies. And I’m supposed to believe you because you know she had a Samsung Galaxy?”

Jill sucked in a breath and quickly covered her mouth. Hardly anyone knew that. Steve was tapping on his desk now with his pen, and then barked into the phone, “Well, that’s not how I do business. You want someone who does it sloppy, call her father.” 

“What are you doing?”

Jill whipped around. Frank was leaning on the other side of the front desk, playing with the iphone she’d put down.

“Yes, what are you doing, Jill?” Steve asked. He was standing next to her now, fingering a piece of paper in his hand.

Jill snapped her head one way then the other, looking at the useless handyman and her spineless boyfriend. Suddenly, one didn’t look anymore appealing than the other.

“You guys are idiots,” she said. “What am I doing?” She snatched the paper from Steve, grabbed the iphone from Frank and the set of Ferrari keys from the counter and strode to the front door.

“I’m going to Dubai,” she said, shoving the door open with her hip. “To find my daughter.”

***

Maria Ivanova turned to her daughter. “Nikkolina, stop playing with your food.”

Instead, Nikki picked up a radish carved to look like a rose and threw it over the seat, hitting her brother on the head. A hand came over the headrest and waved the middle finger.

Maria sighed, picked up the tray and gave it to the flight attendant. “Sorry,” she said in English. “It’s a long flight.”
 
The young woman smiled. “Not too much longer. We’re starting our descent. Can I get you anything else?”

Yes. My own jet. But Maria didn’t say this aloud. Instead she asked for a double espresso. Maybe after the meeting with Anatole, she would have her own jet. She certainly deserved one, keeping her end of the bargain. She leaned back and shut her eyes.

When she opened them, the plane was taxiing on the ground and something near her feet was buzzing.
 
Nikkolina poked her in the side. “Wake up, Mom, your phone is ringing.”

Maria leaned down, was caught by her seatbelt and sat back up to unclip it. The buzzing stopped just as she fished it out of her bag and the lights came on, signaling that they were at the gate.

“Maria, we’re here,” her husband said obviously and impatiently, leaning on his seatback. He was still annoyed that they were flying commercial.

It wasn’t until they were walking toward Transportation and Baggage that she retrieved her messages. Viktor was striding briskly ahead, his right hand trying to tamp down a cowlick that had sprung up on the flight. Alexi was a half step behind him. And Nikkolina followed them, alternating between a shuffle and a run. They looked like a frumpy family of tourists, but at least she’d gotten them all there. Anatole’s voice was in her ear now, and within a few words she had come to a stand still.
 
 “Stoj!”

Three heads swiveled back.

Maria ran to catch up with them, pressing more buttons on the phone. “He’s not here,” she explained, out of breath. “He’s gone to some villa it sounds like.”

“What? Where?” demanded Viktor. Alexi looked a little sick.

Maria shook her head. Her sunglasses flew off and her bag slid down her shoulder and bumped her in the head as she bent down to retrieve them. 

Nikki groaned and grabbed the phone. She listened a moment and pressed a few more numbers. They all looked at her. 

“Philadelphia, Dad. He’s gone to Philly to see a women’s squash tournament.”


Chapter FIFTEEN by Alan Thatcher

“No. You can’t go on your own. Absolutely not.”

 Steve Dwyer followed Jill out of The Vale Squash Club and caught up with her as she opened the driver’s door of his Ferrari.

“It could be dangerous. I’m coming with you. Let me drive. We’ll get to the airport quicker that way.”

Jill silently acquiesced.

“Just tell me what’s going on. Who was that on the phone? What did they want?”

Steve fired up the Ferrari as Jill clicked her seatbelt. “Sounded like Russians. Maybe Mafia. They say they have Jessica and are demanding a ransom.”

Jill stared at Steve, overwhelmed to hear confirmation that her teenage daughter was alive. But terrified to hear that she is most likely in the hands of Russian gangsters.

“What else did they say? Have they hurt her? Is she OK?” The emotion was too much. Tears rolled down Jill’s face as she grappled with the enormity of the situation. 

Steve moved his left hand off the steering wheel and grasped Jill’s right hand.

“We can only hope she’s OK. We know she phoned Sam from New York and we can only hope that these people are looking after her properly.”

Jill shook her head. “I just don’t know…”

Steve said: “You didn’t ask.”

“Ask what?”

“How much they wanted.”

“I’m too frightened to ask.” Her voice trailed off again. “How much was it?”

“Twenty million dollars.”

+++

James Matthew’s iPhone beeped quietly in his pocket to alert him to a new message.

He was sitting in the Starbucks opposite his office in the Upper East Side, New York. His morning coffee break was a ritual. A latte with two extra shots and a pastrami sandwich. Same every day for the last six months since he moved down from Boston.

This helped him operate closer to the big bucks on offer from frightened Wall Street corporations who were terrified of online fraud scams and the armies of Chinese and Eastern European hackers who were intent on destabilising the Western economy. 

He licked the foam off the latte and put his cardboard cup down. A computer genius, Matthew had made rapid advances in helping major corporations improve their online security.

It was a natural extension of the business to provide physical security to some of his clients. The security game had made rapid advances in a short space of time. Criminals, and those trying to resist them, needed to be up to speed with the latest technology.

Keeping up with the criminals, or second-guessing their next moves, were all part of the service.

As an ex-hacker, Matthew was perfectly placed to sniff out the latest trends in cyber-crime.

And he had learned very quickly that smart, athletic, physical enforcement was equally essential to the brainpower needed to be a major player in this booming industry.

This particular message told him that an old friend needed urgent help in a far-away country.  

They had been team-mates on the college squash team.

His friend had already briefed him on the crisis he was facing and Matthew instantly mobilised three staff members to head for JFK.

There were two flights a day to Dubai. They needed to be on the 11.20am flight that got them into Dubai 12 hours and 30 minutes later. They would arrive at 07.50 local time.

He hoped they would be in time to help.

+++

The flight time from London Heathrow to Dubai was six hours and 56 minutes.

Dubai is four hours ahead of London in the spring. The 20.40 Emirates flight was scheduled to land at 06.30.

After racing home to grab passports and pack the barest of essentials into two carry-on bags, Steve and Jill headed for the airport. They didn’t want to be delayed at baggage check.  They just wanted to finds Jessica and bring her home.

+++

Jill had worried about what Jessica might be most in need of. Clothes, toiletries, medicine, maybe. After so many months of worry, her anxiety levels were going off the scale. Her emotions ricocheted between the joy of holding her in her arms again for the first time in almost a year, and her fears that something could go terribly, badly wrong. 

They settled into their seats in First Class and Steve tried to coax Jill into relaxing as much as she could.

“Try to get some sleep. The Russians say they will make contact when we land. They obviously hadn’t looked at the flight schedules when they called earlier.”

The stewardess brought Jill blankets and an extra pillow as she curled up in a ball in her luxury seat and tried to follow Steve’s instructions.

It felt incongruous to be drinking the complimentary champagne that was offered as soon as they ventured past the curtain that separated them from economy class, but she knew it usually sent her to sleep fairly quickly.

It did the trick and she was soon quietly snoozing on the plane as it soared above West London before heading south.

As Jill slept, Steve was busy preparing a back-up plan for their Dubai meeting.

The cash was not an issue. He would pay much more to see Jessica returned safely to her mother, but his competitive urges forced him to look for an alternative solution. No-one had ever made a mug out of Steve Dwyer in business, and he wasn’t about to surrender that record to a bunch of lowlife scumbags who were bartering Jessica’s life.

After an exchange of emails, he thought about shutting down his iPhone. Instead, he opened up a series of documents that set out his ambitious plans for The Vale Squash Club.

His makeover involved an all-glass showcourt, and he wanted to launch it in style with the biggest and best tournament seen in the UK since the halcyon days of the British Open at Wembley Conference Centre, an era when Jahangir Khan won ten years in a row in front of sell-out crowds of more than 3,000.

Steve was a big fan of the Canary Wharf Classic, a tournament he had always headed for when he was in London on business.

Now squash was part of his business, and his new glass court was designed just like the imposing East Wintergarden venue at Canary Wharf, with a mezzanine level for a bar and restaurant suspended above the backwall seating.

That would enable the club to build a reputation, like Canary Wharf, for high-level corporate hospitality.

He had made site visits to inspect the permanent glass courts in Manchester, Sheffield and the new one at the luxurious St George’s Hill Club in Weybridge, the exclusive stockbroker belt in Surrey.

With The Vale north of the river, he might not have the opulent surroundings of the richest county in England, but he had different ambitions, altruistic as well as commercial.

He had finally hooked up again with the love of his life, Jill Smith, they were living together as happily as could be expected in the circumstances, and he wanted to build a business that would provide a solid future for both of her children, as soon as they could be reunited.

It would also provide a massive injection of hope into a game which had lost too many clubs in the capital.

+++

James Matthew stayed in his office for the rest of the day. The next trip to Starbucks was undertaken by one of his staff, who returned with another latte and two bars of chocolate.

As he unwrapped the chocolate and sipped his coffee, he stared at one large screen then another. His satellite links allowed him to conduct a dual surveillance protocol for his wealthy client.

Despite being alerted to the blackmail demands of the alleged kidnappers in Dubai, and his client’s natural inclination to fly out there immediately to bring a hasty conclusion to the situation, he was not convinced that the solution would be so simple.

Sure, he had sent three of his best security guys on the next Emirates flight from JFK, but he was also monitoring all mobile phone frequencies on the Eastern seaboard and had created his own unique access to the highest-level search engines to seek out names and key words that might lead him to the kidnappers of Jessica Smith.

He had picked up chatter about squash, and a women’s tournament in Philadelphia that had accepted a late entry from an unknown European player.

With his extensive background in the sport, he knew tournaments did not run that way.

If it was a WSA tournament, there would have been a closing date for entries and the only way a non-member would be able to play was to gain a local spot in the qualifying competition or a wild card in the main draw.

A late entry from a non-WSA member simply shouldn’t happen. There was only one answer. They had bought their way in.

   

+++

 

Steve Dwyer and Jill Smith ate sparingly on the flight to Dubai. When they touched down, Jill wanted to get off the plane as quickly as possible, but Steve insisted on waiting until they were the last to leave.

He also surprised Jill by heading for a coffee shop once they had gone through customs and ignoring what seemed like urgent calls to his phone.

She couldn’t stop staring around the terminal, looking for Jessica and her captors. She was almost hysterical with fear.

She wanted to shout out her daughter’s name, and hoped she would come running into her arms on the concourse above the world’s biggest duty-free zone, but Steve stayed remarkably calm.


Chapter SIXTEEN by James Zug

Thirty-five hundred miles from the old stone walls of the Vale Squash Club, Steve and Jill and John and Bianca bumped into each other in the Dubai International Airport. 

The entire flight home, John kept working the scene over in his head. Had it just been plain bad luck? To run into his ex-wife and her lover outside the Chanel store in Terminal 3, the shining bottles in serried rows, the overly bright, bouncing light, the syrupy smell of the perfume. He had been so relaxed after his deep-tissue massage and following Bianca as she tested a bottle of Coco Noir. Out of the Skytrain came Jill and Steve. 

“What are you doing here?” Steve demanded. He had a large cup of coffee in his hand; the domed lid had a little bit of plastic which brushed his nose when he drank. 

What are you doing here?” John said. “Together—I thought you were breaking up.” Steve, wearing a new, crimson Harvard squash cap, moved closer, partially blocking John’s view of Jill. For a second, John thought about going after Steve, but he remembered, with sickening dread, about his foolish attack on Gerry. He immediately deflated. 

“We’re looking for Jess,” John continued lamely.

“So are we.”

“We think she’s in the India,” 

“India? We think she’s in Dubai,” Steve said, with a lacerating grin. “I’ve talked with her captors, some Russian mobsters.”

“Russian mobsters in Dubai,” Bianca jumped in. “Well, that should narrow it down considerably.”

“Who the hell are you,” said Jill, her eyes flashing from her formerly hapless ex-husband to this young, nubile woman with a nose ring, a purple streak in her hair and the hint of a tattoo peeking out from under her Capri pants. 

“I’m Bianca Phipps. I work with Angus Murray.

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “You’re with Angus? He never said anything about an assistant.”

“Partner,” Bianca corrected him. “I met him when I worked at the Weekly Scene in Devon—you know, near Aullt.” She added, looking at his hat, “I went to Wellesley.”

Steve was about to throw out a Hasty Pudding joke about her alma mater, but Jill interrupted. “Enough about America. What’s this about India, John?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Bianca came up with it.”

“I know the plan,” Steve said. “We are going to meet with the kidnappers, give them the money and get Jessica. You guys can go home. I’ve got this operation under control”

“Go home?” John said.

“Sounds good,” Bianca said cheerfully. “You guys look like you know what’s going on. We didn’t find out anything here in Dubai. Just a dead-end.”

John blurted out: “A dead end? You, we—“ 

“That’s right,” Bianca said. “We got nothing. But I did get in a good game of squash this afternoon. Some damn good players at the Burj. And,” she added looking straight at Steve, “a great steam room.”

John and Bianca had then gone to the counter to check in to the British Airways flight. His head was doing triple Salchows. The woman in the starched BA suit clicked away at her computer for nearly a minute before acknowledging them.

“Yes, your flight to London leaves in one hour,” she concluded after looking up their reservation.

“London?” said John to the woman.

“Yes, London, dear” said Bianca, wrapping her arm around John’s waist. 

“What about Chennai?” John said, half to himself.

“I’ve got the story. We don’t need Chennai.” She laughed a laugh that sounded like a light rainshower.

“What do you mean?” John wiped his forehead as if it was wet.

“Let’s get our boarding passes and I’ll tell you,” Bianca said, smiling slyly at the woman: they were honeymooners on a global scavenger hunt.

They went to their boarding gate and sat down. John went to the water fountain near the bathrooms to refill his water bottle. A lukewarm spray dribbled out. He couldn’t get his bottle more than half-filled. Typical. 

He sat down. Bianca reported about what Tatiana Gregorieva had told her in the steam room. “Jessica’s not in Dubai. Or in India. She’s on a yacht in the Atlantic.”

“How do you know? What about Steve and the kidnappers in Dubai.”


Bianca ignored the questions. “Tatiana’s sister is married to a very bad dude. His name is Viktor. She mentioned drugs, something about heroin coming out of southwestern Afghanistan and going through Iran. Viktor is knee-deep in some serious shit. Tatiana and her brother have fallen out with the sister and Viktor. Family dynamics. You can’t take Russia out of the Russian, that kind of thing. Tatiana said some English girl was on the sister’s yacht—fancy ship the length of a city block. Had a squash court. The girl trained there, along with Tatiana’s niece.

“She’s been living on a yacht?”

“Yes, Viktor has a court—all-glass in fact—and a pro, workout room, the works. Probably a steam room. Tatiana said the yacht was in the North Atlantic last week when she talked to her sister. That was all she knew.” 

“Maybe New York?” said John hopefully, remembering the call Sam had gotten at boarding school. That had looked like a dead end. Maybe it wasn’t.

“Right. And one more thing. We’ve got more company than just Steve and Jill. Tatiana said some guy from the MI6 was snooping around Dubai asking questions about Viktor. They played squash, she said. She crushed him 3-0 and then the split the two after-games, giving him a bone.”

“How did she know he was MI6?

“He spoke fluent Arabic and fluent Russian, both without an accent. The only guys who just happen to know both those languages and can speak them without an accent are intelligence guys. And besides, Tatiana said he wanted to play to nine, British scoring. Old-school. MI6.
    
*******************

Back in London, John and Bianca took the bus from Heathrow straight into Victoria Station. “6£,” John thought. “Utter larceny they charge four times that on the train to Paddington where no one wants to go anyway, except for a Peruvian bear in a duffel coat.”
 
They got out and walked around the corner to get their bearings. They were travelers of the modern age, stunned by the deathless hours in steel cocoons with only distant piles of clouds as landscape. They were unsure what day it was, what time it was. The quiet of a leafy, back-street Belgravia morning descended upon them. John wanted to lie down and sleep. He was inexhaustibly exhausted. 

Bianca’s hotel was above some Irish bar in Crouch End or something, John couldn’t remember, just far far away. She peered at her phone, both hands gripping and thumbs tapping as if she was making a rugby goalpost and a classmate was about to kick a folded-up triangle of paper through the uprights. She said something about checking in with Angus to track the yacht and then going to a tattoo convention in Wapping. “It’s a big deal,” she said when she saw John slightly roll his eyes. “International convention. And I might change my hair color—green, red, now purple. Am thinking orange. Anyway, where’s Wapping? She asked. 

“Down by Tower Bridge, near Traitor’s Gate.”

As Bianca blithely walked away towards the Underground, John sent his rope-knuckled fingers into his pocket to check his phone for the first time since leaving London forty-four hours earlier. He had just one measly text. It was from Kristin Selby. “WE NEED TO TALK” was all it said. 

John groaned. The last thing he wanted was to revisit all the trouble with her father death. Hadn’t the lawyers sorted it out? Walter was a good chap and it was all an accident. John felt whipsawed by the past week, a ragged towel in an industrial washing machine. He had to break the rhythm. John loved to play squash as if it was a dance. He liked the flow. He almost always hit a cross-court when faced with a short boast. It just felt better that way. He couldn’t improvise well. He was terribly at deception. He could beat players with his good length and width but against anyone at his skill level, he got crushed because he was too predictable. 

He texted Kristen: “COMING NOW. SEE U AT CLEVELAND IN 15 MINS?”

Let’s see, he thought to himself, eyeing the pedestrians on Ebury Street, “In the past two days, I’ve taken the Tube, a plane, a limousine, a taxi, a plane and a bus. What’s left?” Just then a yellow London pedicab came cycling past. John hailed him, flung his tiny black wheelie-bag in the seat, the long handle still periscoped out and sat down. “Cleveland Square,” John barked. He was about to ask if the biker knew his A to Z but his phone buzzed like a rasping armidillo. “YES,” flashed Kristin’s text. “NOW.”

Ten minutes later the pedicab wheeled John slowly pulled through Hyde Park. The grass was flecked with sunbathers and picnickers, the vitamin-starved English desperately savoring the last hints of sunshine before winter. A queue of kids clambered on the pirate ship in the Lady Di playground. Kristin lived in a spacious flat in a mews near Cleveland Square. She was waiting at the door, her face uplifted, her tight blue tee-shirt swimming just below John’s eyeline. She gave him a long, lingering hug and let him inside. She was solicitious. She took his bag. She made tea. They sat in her tiny patio in the back, surrounded by white stucco walls. He told her about the mad trip to Dubai, leaving out most of what Bianca had learned in the Burj Khalifa Sports Club steam room.

“I’m so so so sorry about what happened after Daddy died,” Kristin said, putting her mug down. “I know you’ve had a rotten few months. I was pretty upset about Daddy. First Mummy and then two years later him. In between Simon. I was all alone. My lawyer said he had talked with Nick, that there was a lot more to the Vale Squash Club than just a couple of squash players trying to make a club go. I had a lot of debt at the time. Simon had moved out, leaving me with the mortgage on this flat—I couldn’t sell, it was underwater.” Simon was her ex-boyfriend, a nasty chap from Essex who ran a garden furniture store. He had the intelligence of a used Q-tip. He was probably at the tattoo convention now, hitting on Bianca. 

“What do you mean, more to the club?”

“Nick had told him that the lottery was a joke.”

“A joke? It was £300,000. Enough to buy a squash club.” And almost a Jaguar, John silently added.
 
“Yes, but wasn’t there something odd about the lottery?”

“Sure,” John said hesitantly, not sure at all. He didn’t want to get into it. Did Jack go back to the old man with the magic beans and ask for an explanation about the goddamn beanstalk? “It was a bit strange. We never bought tickets to the lottery. It just came out of the blue. Jill said she had a ticket, but I didn’t see it. We met them at some offices in Slough and they gave us the money. No publicity, they said, which we were fine about—didn’t want my cousins to find out or they’d come begging. Sam was disappointed: he wanted to hold that oversized check they have for the photographs.”

“So you never inquired about the lottery, this money just appearing on your doorstep? That takes the biscuit.”

“No, no, Nick said it was all legit. The money was real. And the winnings were not even regarded as income so Revenue & Customs wouldn’t tax it.”

“Did Nick say anything else?”

“No.” John’s eyes fastened onto her neck, her clavicle freckled and tanned, the wire-taut tendons above. He wanted to curl up there and sleep.

“It just was that Daddy’s death was so weird. He was all fired up about something. He had been retired for years and seemed to have nothing going on in his life besides squash. What is a retired accountant to do? Squash isn’t like golf, it doesn’t soak up the whole day. Then Daddy had this burst of energy. He texted me a couple of times in the week before he died, saying he had a great new idea, something that was going to make he and I a ton of money. It was all very vague. I have the texts still.”

Kristin looked at him as she leaned over to tug her phone from the back left pocket of her jeans She had been laughably chaste when they had their affair, but now she was flirtatious. She scrolled down and clicked and scrolled and then handed the phone over to John. “WE HAVE A LEAD ON THE VALE.” “THE VALE CONNECTED TO BIG INT’L OPERATION.” “MORE TOMORROW.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange,” Kristin said, after a silence. “First you get all this money to buy the club and then Daddy dies from a falling heater and then some guy from America, this Steve Dwyer tosser with a Ferrari, just motors in and saves the club?”

*****

The boat left her on a pier on the Hudson. Jessica slipped her arms through the straps of her squash shoulder bag and walked east. She had stuffed her bag with half a dozen coordinated outfits, racquets and sneakers. Nikki would be angry about that. Andre had given her five new $20 bills, and Anan had rowed her ashore from the yacht before dawn. It had been easy. She moved along the concrete with little jets of exhiliration firing through her mind. It felt great to be on land. She knew she had a couple of hours before Alexi or Viktor would become aware of her absence and by then she’d be long gone. 

She walked past shuttered strip clubs and art galleries of Chelsea, She stopped on Ninth and got a warm bagel. The shop smelled so strongly of baking bread, Jessica almost wanted to stay there. She spread cream cheese: the white knife, the grey tub of cream cheese. It was all so simple and beautiful. But she moved on to Penn Station and waited for the bus.

As the bus bolted away from 31st Street and headed towards Lincoln Tunnel, she thought she saw Sam. Two teenagers walking down Tenth. No, he would be up at Aullt, not down in New York? But wait. December 9th. Maybe the term was over, maybe these American schools with their elongated holidays had let him out. She stood up and pressed her nose against the glass but the bus hurtled through the intersection. Sam? She whispered. No, it couldn’t be him. There must be a hundred boys within a thousand yards right now who looked just like Sam.

Fifteen bucks and two hours later she was standing next to 30th Street Station. She walked east again, this time over the Schuykill and into downtown Philadelphia. Everything was verdant and lush. Bushes still held green. The streets were named after trees. She found the club, just off Walnut, a blue and red flag flapping in the breeze. She went in. She told the porter she was here for the Davenport tournament. She took the elevator up to the third floor and walked past the barber shop and the square swimming pool and into the locker room. No one was there. She found an empty stall, took off her clothes, lifted a towel from the stack on the table and walked into the bathroom. The club was famous for its showers. For the first time in almost a year, she could relax. She turned the two metal knobs. A giant circular disk the size of a trash can lid emitted a torrent of water. The water cascaded over her face, filling her ears. She couldn’t hear a thing. Not one thing.

****

John had played squash with Nick Gaultier for the last two years of university. Nick had been a cocky player, despite playing down on the ladder. He always boasted about past wins. He talked about pro players he had trained with, partied with—good mates—and then, when you asked the pro about Nick, they’d said, “Who?” 

One year when they played Nottingham, John had beaten a very good player at #1, someone who had been on the national junior team. Nick’s first reaction after the match was that he now had indirect over some of the best players in the country. But, John had thought, as Nick patted his back and walked away, you don’t have an indirect—you’ve never beaten me.

John went to Nick’s offices. They were in the Gherkin, the new, pickled-shaped skyscraper in the City. When John entered his office, he was standing by his desk, putting files in a briefcase. His white Oxford shirt hung kempt, without a fold or crease, as though the work he did couldn’t touch him. “I’m moving to the Shard next month,” Nick told John straight away after the assistant had shut the door. “The view is better.” He settled his lanky frame into a leather chair. “How’s your squash?” Was there a hint of disdain there?

Not eager to compare notes, John started to talk about a niggling hamstring. 
Nick interrupted. “Oh, I’ve been playing a lot this fall, getting on court almost every day. I’m going to play in a couple of 35s tournaments.”

“I came here to talk about the Vale.”

“Sounds like things are taking shape over there now.” 

John winced.  “I don’t know. Steve and Jill aren’t there right now. They are in Dubai.” John looked hard at Nick to see if that meant anything to Nick, but.his face betrayed no emotion. “Stephanie’s running it while they are away. So who is the Dwyer guy?”

“Steve’s a fantastic chap, really top-notch. Played at Harvard. Loves fast cars. He’s got plans to build the Vale into THE club in London. Glass showcourt, an American doubles court. Ambitious.”

John knew squash. He had read a history of St. George’s Hill, the squash club in Weybridge; he knew how you built up a club. You didn’t go from zero to sixty in one blink of an eye. You had to shore up the fundamentals, a dependable client base, a solid teaching pro, night leagues, Saturday morning junior clinics. He knew how to run a club. “Dwyer’s up to more than just squash. Where does he get his money?”

“I couldn’t say, John. I mean, it’s in off-shore accounts, so I don’t know the story. He’s put up all these health clubs in the States, dozens of them, very successful. He knows the industry.” 

“What about the lottery, Nick. Wasn’t that just a peculiar thing?”

“The lottery—what do you mean?” He suddenly was speaking slowly, pausing after every word like an invigilator reading directions for an exam.

“Yes, we never got into the newspapers or the tele, nothing was said. Just here’s your money. Jill never played the lottery.”

“What are you saying, that someone just decided to give you £300,000 because you’re a nice guy? I remember the correspondence on it. It was all legit. Jill never played the lottery. Really? I think there’s a lot about Jill you didn’t know.”
 
A note of discord had crept into Nick’s voice, like a string out of tune. John instantly realized that Nick had lied after Walter died. John had chosen the public liability after all. “I remember the correspondence,” Nick had said that awful day, but he never produced any of it. John had chosen the insurance. Nick just hadn’t filed it. Same words again, a vocalized puff of air: I remember the correspondence. Indeed.

John laughed—his first laugh in months. He got up to leave. “Goodbye, Nick. You always were a bit of a wanker.”

******

John went home. He was a cicada that had spent years underground, just focused on staying alive. Now he had burrowed back into the light. He mopped away the sour, damp smell in his flat with a bucket of alcohol. He opened the windows. He got a neighbor to help him lug the love seat back down to the alley. He ran a load of laundry. He put away the dishes that had sat, clean, in his dishwasher for a month. He took out the rubbish. He checked his email and mail. He went through all the paperwork he had on the Vale. 

He emailed two contacts in the Caymans. Off-shore for Americans meant the Caymans, not the Channel Islands or Malta. John had been to the Caymans for their women’s tournament, a spectacular pro event, and had gotten to know a lot of the bankers on the island. Everything was confidential, everyone tight-lipped but John had done them some favors when they came to London: getting them matches, waiving their court fees, plying them with tickets to West End shows, introduced them to some City bigwigs. Quid pro quo. Especially when you’ve gotten them some quid.

Within a day, John had pieced together the story. The Vale wasn’t just a squash club. It was a laundering operation, a way for money to be washed and cleaned and pressed and sent back out into the world.  

Avery Wilberforce, Nick Gaultier and Steve Dwyer. They were all involved.
John realized that accident with the heater was no accident. Walter had found something out.

In the morning, John drove over to the Vale. The parking lot was perfection. The hedges clipped like they did at Kew. Stephanie was at the front desk. She cheerily threw another of her fake, bacon-fat smiles at him, as if he was bladdered and she was waiting patiently for him to collapse on the floor. “Oh, hi Mr. Smith.”

“Hello, Stephanie, wonderful to see you, indeed. Have you seen Frank? I need to have a bit of a chin wag with him.”

“That nice,” she said. The last time Mr. Smith had seen Frank, it was during the courtside melee in which Frank had showed off latent rugby skills and tackled him. “I haven’t seen him this morning, but you know, he sometimes gets in a bit late.”

John looked into court four. Empty. He got the ladder from the back storeroom and hoisted it up near the front wall. He examined the chains where the heater had been. They had been cut, as he suspected. He was carrying the ladder down the hallway when two players ran into him. “Oh, it’s you, John. Great to see you. There’s a body behind the bar.”

John dashed into the bar. In the corner, slumped against the icebox, with blood pooling on the floor, was a dead man. John turned him over with his toe. It was Frank.


Chapter SEVENTEEN by John Branston

Mind the gap.

Which sounded to Bianca like “Moind the gap.” Anyway, she loved it, the oh-so-British warning to boarding and exiting passengers that sounded every time a train approached a station with an air-sucking roar in the London tube. It was her new catch phrase. She even bought a “Mind the Gap” t-shirt at a souvenir store near the Tower of London.

Her cheap international cellphone rang, and she heard the voice of John Smith.

“Where are you? I've been trying to reach you all day.”

“I'm just coming out of the tube station at Oxford Circus,” Bianca said. “Wait a second while I get some space so I can hear you better.”

She fumbled with the unfamiliar phone. The usual horde of tourists and locals was making its way along Oxford Street while the rain had let up. If there was a global recession, they hadn't gotten the news. A man the size of a gorilla wearing a top coat and sunglasses bumped into Bianca, and muttered an apology. She instinctively clutched her bag tighter, but his mitts were way too big for a career as a pickpocket. He reminded her of the face on the billboard she had just seen coming out of the tube for the new movie “The Sweeney” with a tough guy actor named Winston or something.

“No time to chat, but listen carefully and I'll fill you in as soon as I can,” said John. “And do you know anything about firearms?”

“Draw, point, pull the thingee, make it go bang.”

“That's what I was afraid of,” and his voice broke up amid the surrounding din.

“But I can take care of myself,” Bianca quickly assured him.

“I'm sure you can, but we're not talking about drunken college boys trying to get into your pants. We're dealing with some dangerous people here. I decided to stop by the Vale Squash Club. A fellow named Frank who worked as a handy man turned up dead today.”

“Christ, that club again? What happened?”

“Either he strangled himself or someone did it for him. He had a broken neck and spit up some blood. Looks like he put up a fight.” 

“Who wants to whack a handy man? Did he forget to clean the toilets?”

“Cute but inappropriate. I'm not sure but he must have done something or known something that made him more than the pain in the ass I remember. The police are talking to employees and were trying to reach Jill and Steve Dwyer. Get over here as soon as you can.”

Bianca sat down to try to sort it out. Which wasn't easy. It seemed like everyone was a detective and flying off to New York, London, Dubai, India, or who knows where. Vale, goddamned Vale, had been the scene of a death by falling appliance, a possible kidnapping, an assault by a madman with a squash racquet who happened to be her traveling companion, a change of ownership, and now a murder in less time than it takes most health clubs to switch out the towels.

She needed a compass, a guide, someone with some perspective. She called Angus Murray, who had hired her in the first place.

“About time,” he said. “Thought you'd gone rogue.”

“I know,” said Bianca. “But hear me out, okay?”

She told him about her little jaunt to India, the awkward reunion with Jill and Steve, and the call she had just taken from John.

“They're wasting their time,” she said breathlessly. “They've got more money than sense. Jessica's not in Dubai or India. She's somewhere in the states with a guy named Aman. I've been talking to Tatiana Grigorieva and getting her to open up. That's what I do, remember? She's a piece of, uh, work herself, but I think she can help us find Jessica.”

“Maybe,” said Angus, “but I'm getting mixed signals lately from the suddenly not-so-happy couple that is paying our bills. Not so sure they're on the same page, as you say. What I want you to do now is back off for a while and let me earn the retainer. Get back to the flat, and have John call me if he will. I assume he is with you.”

“Not exactly, at least not at the moment, but I can see him soon enough. Unfortunately he's drinking again and not always on his game, but he's smart enough when he's sober. He said he was going to meet someone named Kristen about the sale of the club. I think it figures into Jessica's disappearance somehow.”

“John's a dupe, and Jill may be too,” Angus snapped. “They don't know as much as they think they know, and frankly, neither do you, although you seem to be handing out business cards on three continents. I hired you to poke around a New England prep school and chase a couple of leads in New York for me, not to be the next girl with the dragon tattoo.”

The condescending remarks stung, but Bianca let it go. Angus was a pro. Being a smart ass and know-it-all had nearly gotten her kicked out of college before she dropped out on her own. Keeping her mouth shut and using her head more had given her a new life. She was a 20-year-old girl working at a weekly newspaper who suddenly found herself in London with a man she barely knew and working for a British investigator on a missing persons case. She could handle the likes of Tatiana well enough, but Angus didn't always keep her up to speed and John was erratic on his best days. Too much on her plate. Her instincts told her to chill.

Mind the gap.

The rain had started in earnest, and she decided to take the tube instead of walking or catching a cab. She slipped her pass into the turnstile, rode the escalator down to the corridor where a guy was blowing a saxophone in a passable attempt at “Stormy Weather.”  She tossed a few coins into his open case, got a nod in return, and followed the crowd to Platform Two.

The display flashed “train approaching.” The disembodied voice announced Mind the gap.

She looked toward the black tunnel anticipating the sound that would soon be a roar. She took her place just behind the yellow caution line, and noticed the guy who had bumped into her a few minutes ago. Ray Winstone, that was who he looked like. Yes, only uglier, more Russian that British. He was looking at her now and coming right toward her, no mistake about it, and he did not look like he was going to introduce himself.


Chapter EIGHTEEN by The Squashist

“Excuse me, but what the fuck is going on?”

James Matthew was the type of man who liked to remain in charge, but he quickly realized that what seemed at first to be a relatively simple abduction case had more appendages than a centipede. He didn’t like centipedes, and he didn’t like to be confused. But nonetheless he was, so he decided to investigate the situation by conferencing in the investigators. 

Steve Dwyer had hired him to cover his back in Dubai in case there was an opportunity to wiggle out of the need to fork over a couple million bucks to the bastards who took Jessica. But James also knew that Steve had hired Angus Murray to follow the abduction case in New England, and Angus in turn had hired this Bianca Phipps chick. His Dubai security detail surprised him when they reported that John Smith and Bianca were in Dubai at the same time as Steve and Jill had gone there to pay the dough to the abductors, and that coincidence smelled funny. One of the security men, Boris Obolensky by name, was instructed to follow John and Bianca, and when those two split up, Boris stuck with Bianca. Reporting in to James that he had her eyeballed on the train platform, he got his instructions: Take her in. 

Boris stuck a Glock between Bianca’s fourth and fifth rib and politely asked her to follow him. Bianca readily obliged, and Boris quickly added that she wasn’t being abducted but rather being given a command request to go over what she knows about the Jessica case. “We have the same employer, Steve Dwyer. He hired you and Angus, and he also hired me,” – here Boris smiled winningly – “through James Matthew, a New York security guy. So all we want to do is talk.” At that, Boris put the gun away.

“Ah, that’s a relief,” Bianca said. “If you want to know what’s going on, I can help, but you also have to talk to John Smith, father of the girl, who just called me with some new info. And get Angus on the line.”

Which was how John, Bianca, and Boris ended up at John’s place on a conference call with Angus on the line from Northern Massachusetts and James on the line from the Big Apple. Plus the MI6 guy, though he came later.

“So then,” James asked again, “what the fuck is going on? What Steve told me was that Jessica had been abducted by the Russian mob and they wanted $2 million to get her back, and to go to Dubai for the transfer. You all agree with that statement?”

“Yes and no,” John said. “When we met him in Dubai he told us that the amount was 20.” This caused a flurry of commentary, with no obvious solution, although John’s theory was probably best. “I think he was asked to fork over 2 million but he told Jill it was 20, just to get a little extra loving from my ex-wife.” The line was delivered morosely. 

Bianca then explained what she knew, and it was a lot. “I talked to Tatiana Grigorieva, an old friend, who I just happened to meet in Dubai.” A little neuron in James Matthew’s brain fired away at that: another funny coincidence… “Her brother Anatole is a big-time shit, who she confessed is into drug dealing on a major scale, although she would never admit that in any court,” Bianca added. “Tatiana said that Anatole’s older sister Maria is married to a Viktor Ivanov, another big-time supplier, who was allied with Anatole but with whom they have now had a falling out. It turns out that Anatole had called us pretending to be some Indian capitalist big-shot who had information on Jessica’s disappearance, sending us to Chennai by way of Dubai, but that was all bull.”

“Why would he do that?” James asked.

“I told you, he’s a shit,” Bianca said. “But the interesting thing is that Tatiana had heard that there was a girl on the Ekaterina, the Ivanov yacht, which is mostly used for picking up opium shipments at various ports and moving them around in international waters. Tatiana said the yacht has a squash court and a squash pro, and without doubt that is where Jessica has been kept these last months.”

“That goes with the social media info you discovered, Bianca,” Angus said. “That yacht has been floating in New York harbor for awhile. Perhaps we could get a search warrant?”

“No need,” James said. “I think I know where she might be. There’s a women’s pro squash tournament going on in Philly, starting tomorrow. My security firm has been tracking cell phone chatter about anything to do with squash, and it seems the tournament has had a very odd last-minute addition. The chatter says the new player is named J. W. Vale, and she has a coach, a guy named,” – James looked down at his notes -- “Aman Hussein. Do you think this J.W. is our girl?”

John could barely contain his excitement. “I bet you everything it’s her! ‘J’ is for Jessica, obviously, and Vale is the name of our club! And W …”

“… Is for Weetabix!” Angus said. “She’s sending us a message. She may not yet feel free to escape, but somehow she has managed to get to this tournament. We have to get there and extract her from whatever situation she is in.”

“This is good, then, very good, we are making real progress here,” James said. “I will let Steve know what’s going on right away.”

John looked meaningfully at Bianca, and then said, “No, hold on, not quite yet. Listen, everyone, I have only today received new information, but before I tell you what it is I need everyone to promise that they will look beyond who employs them and continue on in search of justice. The information I have is damaging to Steve Dwyer, that prick. This will be a matter for the police.”

“John,” James said, “rest assured, my business requires me to never shield anyone from the law, even if they employ me. This case already involves international drug smuggling and abduction, so we already have plenty of reasons to bring in the police. But, you know, I have an excellent contact in this area. If you are about to get into a discussion about international drug smuggling, then hold on a moment, I might be able to get him in on this conference call, he just might be able to help. Stand by everyone….”

They were put on hold while James called up his most important international contact, an expert at MI6 whose beat is the drug trade. James had made it a habit to feed any relevant information he came across to Weston Faulks, who in turn helps him out a bit when needed. James has a few such contacts across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, but Weston was by far the most fruitful contact of them all. 

James briefly explained that he was working on a case that apparently involved two groups of drug smugglers, the Ivanovs and Anatole Grigoriev, and that he could use his insights. At the mention of the two drug cartels, Weston was happy to oblige. “Patch me in!” he said.

James got back on the conference line. “Hello everyone, I have on the line an expert on the international drug trade. I can’t tell you who he works for, and I can’t tell you his real name, but his information is as good as anyone’s. He will go by the name of Jim for the purposes of this call. Jim, by the way, happens to be in Dubai as we speak. John, you were about to tell us what you had discovered.”

“Okay, it’s a long story, but I’ll keep it short. The first thing to know is that we bought the club because of some supposed winnings from a lottery, but the actual lottery was all very vague. One day we pretty much were given a bunch of money and Jill came up with the idea of buying the club. Just like that, out of the blue. At the time it seemed impossibly lucky, now it seems like something else entirely. It was all arranged through my solicitor, an old friend named Nick Gaultier. More about him later… 

“I recently heard from a woman named Kristin Selby, and it was her father, Walter, who was the fellow who died at the Vale when the big heating unit fell on top of him. Kristin told me that her father had found something out about the club right before he died. She didn’t know what, but he had texted her saying that the Vale was part of a, quote, big international operation, unquote. Then he was dead. I just had a talk with Nick, who was the one who took care of the insurance policies and dealt with the aftermath following Walter’s death. I found out that Nick deliberately misled me about the policy we had for accidents at the club. He said it didn’t exist, and as a result we had to sell. To Steve Dwyer. I checked the chains supporting the heater and they were clean-cut. It was no accident.

“So this accident was set up to do away with Walter, who had discovered something, and force me to sell the club. I contacted two old buddies I know in the Caymans who owe me a few favors, and they confirmed my suspicions. Steve has accounts set up that take money in and out of his clubs in the US, as well as the Vale club, and launder bad money into respectable profits. It turns out that old Avery Wilburforce, a patron of our club, owns one of the accounts with Steve. This must be why Avery insisted his brother-in-law Frank stick around after the sale; he was really Avery’s eyes and ears at the club. And, furthermore, someone has apparently figured that out, because Frank, that idiot, just turned up dead, strangled at the club.”

“That’s interesting,” Jim said. “I can confirm that Nick Gaultier has been used in laundering operations in the past; we have been aware of him for a while, though we are just watching at this point. We thought it was small-time stuff, but maybe not. I can also confirm that Avery Wilburforce has had some shady dealings in the past, and he served some time for check kiting about three decades ago. Steve Dwyer, as far as I know, has had a clean record.”

“So, Jim, how do you think the Ivanovs and Grigoriev are connected to this?” asked James.

“I have a theory, and I bet it’s on the money. I think the lottery win was to set you up as sucker-owners who could be manipulated by Avery Wilburforce and Anatole Grigoriev. I hate to say it, John, but it seems like Jill may have been in on the deal, at least partially. Wilburforce, who had been at the club for a long time, probably proposed using the Vale as the first non-USA club to join in on their line of launderers, but Walter somehow got wind of their plan and they had to go with a more forceful one. Kill Walter, and then buy the club. All well and good. On the other hand, Viktor Ivanov and his family I believe somehow enticed Jessica to come away with them, probably willingly. They wanted to exert some control over the club, perhaps by blackmailing John if needed. I think they did this without Grigoriev’s knowledge, and it is evidence of the rift that now exists between the two groups. Viktor Ivanov is ruthless and has done this type of thing before. The only thing worth noting is that Grigoriev is even more ruthless. And Frank’s death strikes me as interesting. I think Frank’s death was a message to Grigoriev, Wilburforce and Dwyer that Ivanov is out there and not happy. He’s played second fiddle to Grigoriev for years; now he’s saying screw you to the lot of them. And that means we may have a war on our hands.”

The phone went quiet as this news sunk in. A war between drug smugglers seemed removed from their daily lives except for one excruciating detail: Jessica was involved. 

“What now?” John asked. “We’ve got to go to Philly to get Jessica, that’s all I care about.”

“Philly?” said Jim. “That’s interesting. We know that Grigoriev is now in Philly, and the entire Ivanov family is even as we speak in the air in transit to Philly. Why there?”

Bianca explained the hunch that Jessica was playing the tournament as J.W. Vale and was accompanied by her coach, Aman Hussein.

“Aman Hussein!” said Jim. “That’s my friend Gamal Hussein’s nephew, whose been missing for months, supposedly lolling about on a yacht acting as a squash pro. That’s it then; you’re hunch is hereby confirmed.”

“Well, I’m going to Philly to check out this tournament,” Angus said.

“Me too,” said Bianca.

“Me three, that’s for damn sure,” said John.

“Well, with the Ivanovs there and Grigoriev there, I better get there too,” Jim said. Or rather Weston Faulks said.

“I’ll see you all there,” James said. “Boris, you and your security detail meet me there. Well, gentlemen, lady, off to the city of brotherly love. See you in Philly.”

-----------------------------------------------

Sam Smith and his squash buddy Nestor Geiberger spent all day wandering around the city and even visited several squash clubs, thinking they might possibly find Jessica. But New York is a big city, and they saw neither hide nor hair of her. Frustrated, they went back to Nestor’s apartment. The next day, they got up and didn’t know what they should do next. 

“Sam,” Nestor said, “let’s admit defeat on this for the time being. I need some fun. All this going to squash clubs has got me anxious to get my squash in. I read on the Daily Squash Report website that the WISPA Philadelphia Open starts tomorrow. It’s just 2 hours by train, and won’t cost all that much. What do you say we go check it out? We can stay at Ben’s place, his family lives right in town and I have a standing invite. Plus his brother goes to Drexel University and we can play squash there.”

Sam was as much of a squash nut as Nestor, and he knew he would never find Jessica. He’d have to leave that for the authorities. Plus, he’d never been to Philly, and the squash would be damn good.

“Sure, let’s do it. Let’s go to Philly."


Chapter NINETEEN by Peter Heywood

The line went dead.

Weston pushed a button on the hand-set. There was a click and a low hum.

‘Did you get all that?’ asked Weston. There was a pause.

‘Loud and clear,’ came the reply. One of the workers looking after their queen, Weston thought.

‘She’s on her way.’

Weston hit the button again and swivelled towards Thorpe. The dusk was filtering into the Dubai offices of Global Trading prompting the ‘Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’ to reach behind him for a bottle and two glasses. He poured a measure of whiskey into both and handed one to Weston.

‘So,’ said Thorpe, ‘it would appear that your efforts have generated more than a little movement on the chessboard.’

Weston glanced down and brushed a non-existent speck of dust from his slacks.

‘Well, you did ask me to find out what Grigoriev was up to,’ he responded, raising his eyes to meet Thorpe’s. ‘It turns out that he was up to quite a lot.’

Thorpe chose not to rise to the bait. Weston had form as a loose cannon. As well as a ladies’ man. But he could sniff out the opportunity for a big sale.

‘As I see it,’ continued Thorpe, employing a measured delivery which Weston sensed was tinged with disappointment mixed with curiosity, ‘not only do you seem to know rather more than you have, up to now, disclosed to your superiors, but you have now shared carefully chosen parts of it with a, shall we say, disparate group of individuals searching for a missing girl.’

Weston remained silent.

‘All this,’ continued Thorpe, ‘in the context of what would appear to be a rapidly-developing conflict of interests between two rather nasty players in the global drugs trade. Players who are not only related by marriage but who are also clearly prone to the influence of their family members – particularly in relation to the noble art of squash racquets.’

‘You could say that,’ responded Weston.

Thorpe took a sip at his malt and grunted. His analysis had given him time to appreciate what Weston had also chosen to disclose and, more importantly, not to disclose to Mr Matthew and his assembled guests. The present whereabouts of Grigoriev and the Ivanovs; the laundering record of Steve Dwyer; his surprise at hearing of the whereabouts of his old squash coach’s nephew.

‘Sense, adapt, exploit,’ mused Thorpe. ‘But don’t trouble yourself with the possible consequences.’

‘Ah, well,‘ he thought, ‘everyone’s entitled to a little white lie or two, now and again.’

++++

It was another hour before Weston left Thorpe’s office. He stepped into the warm Gulf evening and waved down a taxi. The call with London had been short. Plenty of questions but nothing in the way of instruction. Dispassionate, workmanlike, faint praise. ‘Await further instructions’ was the message. And Weston didn’t like it. No clearance to fly to Philadelphia, no  sign of calling in the cousins. What was she playing at?

++++

Thorpe re-filled his glass and settled into his chair. The return call was not long in coming.

‘Well, Thorpe?’ she enquired.

‘If I read this correctly, Ma’am,’ he began, ‘the Grigorieva woman wants to change the peripatetic yet somewhat high-risk lifestyle she currently enjoys with her brother. To achieve this, she appears to have enlisted the support of Weston, Miss Phipps and, almost certainly, her own sister, having made a big show of falling out with the latter in the past. The sister also wants to remove herself from her current, er, domestic situation and take her daughter with her. At the same time, Grigoriev wishes to, shall we say, terminate his relationship with his brother-in-law and replace him with a less conspicuous US distributor.’

He paused.

‘Go on.’

‘And then there’s Ivanov’s son, of course,’ he continued, warming to his task. ‘The boy is prone to exhibiting somewhat psychopathic behaviour which has led to him getting into trouble in the past, and is likely to do so in the future. A high profile is, as you would concede, Ma’am, not a desirable attribute for someone involved in the global drugs trade.’

‘I should have thought not, Thorpe,’ came the reply. A little frosty this time, he sensed, in direct contrast to the temperature of his office. He pressed on.

‘Finally, there’s the Smith girl. Ivanov junior has been particularly ineffective in his attempts to secure a ransom for her from her mother and Mr. Dwyer. His incompetence alone would seem to be enough to call his continued involvement in the business into some question.’

‘Which is why,’’ came the response, ‘Grigoriev has travelled to the US to make arrangements for the Ivanovs’ imminent retirement. Under the pretext of visiting a squash tournament, I understand. Very imaginative.’’

‘I believe that cover may have been suggested by his younger sister, Ma’am,’ said Thorpe. ‘She may also have advised him to invite the Ivanovs to Dubai whilst he travelled to the US to arrange their replacement unhindered.’

‘And Weston?’

‘Wants to be present at the, er, tournament,’ said Thorpe. ‘for obvious reasons, although perhaps not the ones that might occur to Mr Matthew and his friends.’

Silence. Then, just as he was about to ask…

‘Get him on the first flight, Thorpe. Let’s give him enough rope to hang himself, shall we?’

‘Yes, Ma’am.’

‘Oh, and Thorpe?’

‘Yes, Ma’am?’

‘You may want to make sure that the sales force is at full strength over the next few days. Business opportunities in your part of the world may be about to come thick and fast.’

++++

Steve Dwyer arranged himself as comfortably as he could in his seat and sipped at his drink. The lights in the cabin were dimmed as the night flight to London headed north-east across the Arabian peninsula.

After the debacle in Dubai, he and Jill had been forced to wait more than 24 hours for the next available flight, 24 hours during which her state had changed from despair to near hysteria as her hopes of being re-united with her daughter had been dashed. Now she slept soundly beside him as Steve tried to make sense of the situation they were now in.

There had been no meeting with Jessica’s kidnappers, no hand-over of ransom money, no electronic transfer of funds, no re-union. Just a voice-mail left on his ‘phone while he and Jill were still in the air heading for Dubai.

It was the same voice, the same accent, the same cocky delivery, the same menace. There had been a ‘change of plan’, it said. His journey to Dubai had been ‘a test’ to see whether he was serious about securing the girl’s release.’ He was ‘being watched’, it said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

And the same mantra.

‘She dies.’

++++

He and Jill were in the queue in Heathrow immigration before Steve switched on his cell-phone. He scanned the SMS message and voicemail details, looking for patterns. Plenty from James Matthew, one from Angus, a few from business contacts, even one from a squash buddy. ‘Probably wants a game,’ thought Steve. ‘I could tell him a thing or two about games.’

‘Oh, my God!’

His thoughts were suddenly shattered by Jill’s cry. Their fellow supplicants in the queue turned to look. She was talking to someone on her cell. ‘When did it happen?’ then ‘Why did it take you so long to get me?’ and ‘I’m in immigration at Heathrow. I’ll ring you back later.’

She hung up and grabbed Steve’s elbow, dragging him out of the queue. Her face had turned white.

‘That was Stephanie. Frank’s been murdered at the Club,’ she said. 

++++

Twenty minutes later they were making their way through the green channel. Jill appeared calm, thought Steve. Maybe Frank’s death had given her something else to focus on, for the time being at least.

He said nothing to her as they approached the exit. He glanced at his cell-phone and began to scan his message and voicemail again. Force of habit.

He was waking up now, feeling more alert. Looking for patterns.

Suddenly, he began to feel uncertain, anxious. So many issues to deal with, so many people needing his attention, so many plans to make. Just in case.

He looked up.

Less than 20 metres away, at the end of the exit channel, stood two uniformed police officers. Not airport police. With them stood a youngish man wearing a black leather jacket. Another officer Steve guessed. They seemed to be waiting for someone off a flight.

And they were looking directly at him.

++++

It was December 9th.

He stood across the street watching the blue and red flag flapping in the breeze.

It had been easy to follow the girl, to keep her in his sights as she made her way through the city to the building. He had the street-craft, the gift of noticing patterns,  the gift of remaining inconspicuous, unobtrusive. It came naturally to him. Natural after years of learning, and surviving, in a world of shifting urban landscapes.

And, he thought to himself, he was going to need it if he was going to survive. Not just today, but every day until the game had played itself out. Whatever that might mean. For him. For the girl. For the others.

Yes, he was going to need it when they began to follow him. 

And in the last few minutes he knew that they were already following him.

He had thought that he’d have more time before they appeared. Before they made their presence felt.

Still, they were here now. Part of the ecosystem of the city with its steel and concrete towers, its manicured parks, its river, its history, its…brotherly love. Plying their own form of street-craft, he supposed but, surely, one more suited to different landscapes, different cultures?

He’d already spotted one of them. Across the park to his left, maybe a hundred metres away. And a second, standing on the corner with Walnut. Too easy.

There was something noticeable about them. A sense of disquiet, a sense of not quite being comfortable, a sense that maybe there were other players in the neighbourhood. In the game.

He glanced at his watch. Time to move. More people would be arriving soon for the tournament. To compete, to play the game, to watch. The endgame.

He reached inside his track suit top and felt the gun nestling in its holster under his left armpit. Just in case.

He bent down, hoisted his racquet case onto his shoulder and strode towards the building.


Chapter TWENTY by Aubrey Waddy

“Who is that girl?”

Bianca smiled to herself as she eavesdropped on two of the players from the main draw in the Davenport Philadelphia Open. They were watching qualifying on the left hand of a row of four glass back courts. Bianca remembered the two girls from the time she had played tournaments herself. In front of her was Eliza Dardanelle, as always eye-catching in a tight yellow tracksuit and matching Nikes, and to her right Jo-Anne Shrugg , wearing a World Squash Day t-shirt and artfully shredded jeans.

“She’s listed as Jess Vale.”

“Jess who? Never heard of her.”

“Nor have I. Shit, is Catreena even going to get a point?”

The two girls, and a few other desultory spectators, continued to admire the demolition Jess was meting out to a qualifier who had been fancied to make it into the main draw.

“Where is this Miss Vale going to end up in the first round?” Eliza whispered.

“You mean if she makes it into the first round.”

“Hey come on,” Eliza replied as Jess, incredibly focussed, with her red hair in a tight pony tail, powered another winner past a by now despondent Catreena Williams. “If she’s beating Catreena this easily she’ll cruise through whoever she plays next up.”

“I think I know,” Jo-Anne said. “In the first round, I think she’ll be playing Françoise.”

Eliza giggled. Françoise Dutronc was the second seed, the world number three, and not popular in the locker room. “I’ll be watching that one then.”

Jo-Anne jabbed her finger at her friend. “Of course if she beats Françoise, then she’ll be playing you know who.”

“Me. Shit! I didn’t realise. After watching her I think I’d prefer Françoise.”

This time it was Jo-Anne who giggled. “Nobody prefers Françoise.”

Bitch bitch, Bianca thought.

“Anyway,” Jo-Anne went on.  “You’d have an advantage on the glass court, no argument. This girl can’t be used to a white ball and all. But where has she come from?”

Bianca was distracted by four people, certainly not squash players, approaching in front of courts to their right. They were led by a thick-set, balding guy with a goatee. He was followed by a tall, fair young man with a faint resemblance to him but no goatee, a plump dark-haired girl, again no goatee Bianca observed, and a frowsy middle-aged woman with too much make up on.

As he approached, the goatee merchant was staring fiercely past Bianca to the top of the gallery and she turned to see a dusky figure she hadn’t noticed earlier moving hurriedly away down the far side.

The goateed gent projected what was, for a squash gallery in the middle of a serious competitive match, a highly inappropriate shout.

“Aman, you stop!”

The accent was not from this side of the Urals, Bianca concluded. Then it dawned on her: this must be the Ivanov clan, and, remembering James Matthew mentioning Jessica’s coach, she concluded that the dude rapidly departing from the exit to the left of the gallery had to be Aman Hussein.

The players had stopped mid point at the altercation. In a shrill voice the marker said, “Quiet please.”

The two male Ivanovs ignored her and blundered past the bags and drinks bottles and spare racquets at the front of the court. Maria and Nikki Ivanov held back uncertainly.

Bianca decided to follow the men, so she didn’t see several burly figures in dark glasses arriving from the same direction as the Ivanovs.


“Mr Dwyer?” The hard looking young man in the black leather jacket had an equally hard sounding voice.

Steve suppressed a surge of anger. He didn’t the fuck need this after the last fucking couple of days, into Dubai, no sign of Jessica, the wait for the fucking flight back. The police posse was, as it had appeared to be when they first saw it, waiting for them.

“Yes, what is it?” Steve said. “And who are you?”

“Would you like to come with us, Sir.”

A command, not a question. “And the lady as well.”

The uniformed officers were festooned with gear, a torch, a truncheon, various electronic gizmos, plus, Steve noted, both a hand gun holstered to their belts and a mean-looking submachine gun held casually in their right hands. They moved menacingly either side of Jill and Steve. Neither of them had an identifying badge, Steve was not pleased to remark.

“We don’t have options, do we?” he said.

“No, Sir.” The ‘Sir’ did not come across as a mark of respect.

Jill was equally irritated, but slower to read the signals. Addressing Steve, she said, “You’re not just going to let them do this to us. We have to get to the club.”

“If you mean Vale Squash Club, Mrs Smith,” the hard guy said, “that’s exactly where we’re going.”

“How do you know who I am? Well thank you, anyway, Sir, but no thanks. We can get there perfectly well under our own steam.”

The hard young man nodded at one of the policemen, who gripped Jill firmly by the arm.

“You can try to do it your way, Mrs Smith, and if you do I’ll have two female officers here inside a minute. They’ll help you along with us. And they’re much tougher than these pansies. Or you can do it my way and,” he looked at a clock on the wall of the terminal, “we’ll be at the club a whole minute sooner. Whichever you please.”

“Come on, Jill,” Steve said. “We’re not going to win this one.”

The cops took their carry-on luggage and frogmarched them out of the terminal to a Range Rover waiting in a No Standing zone with its lights flashing.

Five litres of  V8 and four hundred horsepower, Steve thought, none of them unemployed as they screeched away from the terminal. Jill was in a less mechanically-minded panic and had to stop herself from clutching the brawny uniformed arm beside her. For her the journey turned out to be thirty five minutes of pure fear, siren on continuous like a demonic, never-answered ring tone; red traffic lights routinely ignored; innocent road users bullied out of the way onto sidewalks. They arrived at the club, a full fifteen miles across North West London, in half the time it would have taken a normal motorist on a clear day.

These guys are in a serious hurry, Steve thought.

No fewer than five police vehicles were arranged outside the Vale Squash Club in a flashing blue light festival. Steve and Jill were ushered through the front entrance by the uniformed cops, following their boss.

Inside, Mr Hard addressed an equally granite-looking non-uniformed guy standing beside the desk. “Where’s Wilberforce?”

“I can’t account for it. Wilberforce has given us the slip. He must have made it out the back of his house and across the fields in his SUV.”

“What? Shit, not good, that changes things.” Mr Hard wiped his hand across his face. “Okay, where can we talk to these two?”

“There’s an office through there. We’ve got Gaultier in there.”

Mr Hard’s cellphone rang.

“Yes. Yes.” The first ‘yes’ was a Doberman bark but the second could have emerged from nothing fiercer than a poodle.

“I see. I see. Yes, yes Ma’am, all right. Yes, we will.”

“It’s three bags full, is it?” Steve sneered. “What now?”

His face immediately screwed up in agony and he dropped to his knees.

“Oh, so sorry, sir,” one of the uniformed policemen said. He had been holding Steve by the arm. “Did I grip your elbow a little tightly?”

Mr Hard smiled momentarily. “That’s enough, Mick. Change of plan and we’ve got to hurry. We’re taking Gaultier and these two to Philadelphia. There’s a BA flight in an hour. Back to Terminal Five NOW.

“And you, “ he addressed Steve. “You get up. Fun and games this isn’t and you’ll regard me and my men from now on as an impertinence-free zone.

“Understand?”


It was December the eleventh. Weston had marked a total of three men following him across Philadelphia two days before, and had then artfully lost them. He’d seen the girl safely reach the club, and had discovered from the Daily Squash Report web site that she had astonished the squash world in coming though the Philadelphia Open qualifying as a complete unknown, with two easy victories. Weston knew his squash and the message he picked up was, “This is the Philly Open for Pete’s sake, a two hundred thousand bucks WSA tournament, the biggest. Just who is this red-headed phenom? And why haven’t we heard of her?"
 
The girl had apparently been revealing nothing about herself. Furthermore, further mystery, the coach who had been with her on the first day seemed to have disappeared.

Today she was due to play the second seed, a hard-as-nails French star. ‘This is brewing up,’ Weston reflected, ‘but I need to make things a little less complicated. Grigoriev’s goons,’ he laughed to himself, ‘let’s call them Anatole’s Angels, have served their purpose, and it’s time they returned to St Petersburg. And if I can’t persuade them to do that…’


Before he died, tied to a chair in chemically-induced agony in a grim, disused Philadelphia warehouse, Alexi Ivanov had described over and over to Anatole Grigoriev every last tiny detail of the Ivanovs’ Afghan web of activity, every link in their US distribution chain, and the full embarrassment of his own efforts to separate Steve Dwyer from twenty million dollars in exchange for the life of Jessica Smith.

Grigoriev had been surprised at this last bit of intelligence and had laughed.

“What a little big boy you are,” this came in accented English. “You don’t have the money and now you don’t even have the girl. Your father, your late father, I like this word late, he told me how disappointed he was. In you, Alexi Alexeyevich. The girl? You tell me she is staying in the club?"

Alexi had nodded, still fighting the silver duct tape across his mouth.

“I will get her back,” Grigoriev said. Brandishing a now half empty hypodermic syringe, he asked, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”

With panic in his eyes, Alexi had shaken his head.

“Are you really sure? Names? Addresses?”

Alexi stared at him.

“Then that’s all I need from you. Do svidaniya, little big boy.”


An hour later Grigoriev was talking with his sister Maria in the lobby of her down town hotel.

“Can you get the girl to visit you here? We can take her back and do the job properly with the Dwyer man. My sources say that he will be here, in Philadelphia, and he’ll have the Smith woman with him. Once they have been so close to the girl, once they have seen the girl, they will be all the more willing to pay.”

“No, the girl won’t trust me to come here.”

“Nikki will do it.”

“No. Nikki is upset you sent Victor and Alexi away.”

Grigoriev withheld the details of ‘away’. “Then we will have to take her at the club. It will be possible. I have three men. After her match tomorrow we will do it, when she is returning to her room, that will work.”

Maria checked her appearance in a mirror from her purse. “She is very careful. You will have to be quick.”

“We will be quick.”

He didn’t tell his sister that he had further plans for members of the Smith family. After he’d learned about the Ivanovs’ blunder in letting Jessica make the phone call from the Ekaterina to Sam in the Aullt dormitory, he had put a tail on the boy. He had learned earlier in the day that Sam and his friend Nestor Geiberger were on their way to Philadelphia and the club to see Jessica’s first round match.

What could be more convenient?


Bianca parked her hire car in the Short Term at Philadelphia International Airport. She was in good time for the flight from Boston bringing Angus Murray and James Matthew into Philly. Apart from being furious with herself that she’d let the two Ivanovs get away when they’d set out after Aman, and she’d seen neither of them since, in other respects she was happy with what she had accomplished since coming in at Angus’ suggestion, three days earlier. That morning she felt she deserved a reward and had celebrated in a big mall by updating the streak in her hair to violet and acquiring a tight violet t-shirt and matching violet Capri pants. Smarter than her usual floppy shirt, jeans and sneakers, but there was a reason. Bianca had the vague hope of getting lucky with the ultra-cute Alexi Ivanov before this gig was over. Could she finagle Alexi into a one on one during an off duty moment? Well, let’s say an off duty hour, maybe? Perhaps if he came to watch the game that evening? Afterwards? As a precaution therefore, she’d also managed to source some matching violet underwear in Victoria’s Secret. Too much paper for too little fabric, she thought ruefully, but a girl’s gotta do.

Bianca had no idea that Alexi’s bloated body was at that moment bobbing, face down, in the Delaware River estuary, not far from that of his father, and beyond the coercion of even the most powerful of Viagra analogues. Certainly Alexi was off duty but even more certainly he was of no use to Bianca in the hoped for context of what might have been ‘Bianca’s Secret’.

Bianca’s musings at the Domestic Arrivals gate were interrupted when she picked out James and Angus walking purposefully towards her. Her violet wardrobe was covered by a stylish black trench coat but there was no doubt who the bouncing, waving figure was as the two men confronted the usual assembly of meeters, greeters and card carrying limousine flunkeys.

As they were exiting the car park Angus from the front passenger seat said, “Right, situation update. You first, Bianca.”

“Well, first, Jessica’s here of course. But she’s not talking to anyone, period. She spends all her time in her room except when she’s playing or practicing or working out. Twice a day. There’s this huge gym at the club. I tried to get her to open out, I was beside her on a running machine yesterday morning, jeez she’s fit. No go though. She just stared at me and turned up her headphones. After her second qualifying round win, you should have seen it; everyone was on to her, microphones, note books, Canons, Nikons, you know the scene. She just blanked them all. Wouldn’t speak to anyone. It was weird.

“Next is a puzzle,” Bianca went on. “I’m sure I saw her coach, you know, Aman Hussein, the first day I was here. He was in the gallery watching Jess, and like I told you, he left pronto pronto when the Ivanovs arrived.
 
“And they’ve gone too, pouf, vanished. It looked like they were gunning for Aman. Dunno if they got to him ’cos I lost them.

“And now this is the scary one, there were these real goons, like out of a movie, in heavy leather coats, three of them. I think they were following the Ivanovs. They came into the court area right after them.” She laughed. “Everyone’s chasing everyone.”

She pulled up at a red and turned to Angus. “Intellectually, ugh, they looked on a par with depleted uranium, not the brightest stars in the galaxy. Slavic types. Oops, sorry Slavia! Mikhail Gorbachov’s my great hero, I promise. Boris Pasternak, yeaaah! Dima Bilan, Rudolf Nureyev, sexy Rudi, all good. Prejudiced I’m not.”

“The light’s changed,” Angus said.

“Sorry. I’ve not seen the goons again either,” she said as she pulled away. “Oh, and last thing. Jess is playing squash out of her flipping skin. She’s seriously aggressive. With serious control. High quality. She’s dropped just three points in her two qualifying games. That’s ridiculous. This evening she’s playing the second seed, Françoise Dutronc, and the skinny is she has a chance of beating her. For a qualifier that is ridiculous. The place is going to be packed. I’ve got you seats, by the way.

“And I think that’s it.”

“Okay, thanks, Bianca,” Angus said, “and well done.

“Now, assembling what we know,” he went on. “First up, some Brit under-cover people are delivering, actually delivering, Steve, Jill and Nick Gaultier to Philadelphia. You picked this up, didn’t you, James?”

“Yes, well, the traffic has been very deep, very obscure. There’s high levels of interest on both sides of the pond. The whole Steve Dwyer Avery Wilberforce Nick Gaultier caper. It’s way above the pay scale of the London Metropolitan Police, that’s for sure. The thinking is, MI6 or some mob like MI6, they’ve got their boots on some mother’s throat, a seriously bad throat, but they’re not sure how seriously bad. I couldn’t access it but I got the feeling there’s been Downing Street White House traffic here. Unofficially, and this is very deep but I got a sniff of it from GCHQ, the whole imbroglio could have a bearing on the eventual military departure from Afghanistan.”

“No kidding?” Bianca exclaimed as she turned into Walnut Drive.

James went on, “And this made me laugh. You know how much Steve Dwyer thinks of himself? The cool, international businessman, the high flyer. Well, they’re high flying in humble BA Coach into Philly. Knees to your chest, Steve, baby!

“They’re scheduled to arrive in an hour from now.”

“So that’s that lot,” Angus went on. “What else have you got?”

“Coach it won’t be, this one. Avery Wilberforce, no less, is coming in to Philly too, on United. First Class of course.” James checked the time on his phone. “In fact he should be here by now. He’s some sort of meeting scheduled with Anatole Grigoriev, and it’s going to be at the Davenport.”

“Quite a party coming up then,” Bianca said.

Angus laughed. “I’m not finished yet. John Smith and his maybe girlfriend Kristin Selby, they’re arriving today by Delta. What a party in Immigration!”

“Actually not,” Angus said. “The spook group will go through the softly softly channel.”

Bianca glanced at Angus. “So John and Kristin and Steve and Jill will all be in Philly? And I suppose they’re all heading for the club?”

“Yes,” Angus said. “James thinks so, don’t you? In time for Jess’s match of course.”

“Right,” James said. “So what we have is,” he started counting on his fingers, “up to four Ivanovs, though from what Bianca has said, that may be in doubt; there’s loose cannon John Smith, we’ve no idea what he’ll do when he sees his daughter; Kristin Selby, unknown quantity; Steve, Jill and Nick Gaultier plus members of Her Majesty’s Shady Brigade. And here’s one of the less predictable ones: Anatole Grigoriev, he won’t be far away, that’s with his Wilberforce meeting. If Anatole’s around you can bet he’ll have some muscle not far away. And of course we can assume your friend Weston Faulks will be here somewhere, but whether he’s linked to the other Brit spooks we really don’t know. And finally, we can assume there’ll be a deposition from Langley to keep all the Brits in order and ensure that Uncle Sam’s interests are well served.”

James concluded thoughtfully, “It’s going to be a hell of a mixture at the club tonight.”

As they drove into the Davenport Club car park none of them realised that, extensive as James’ summary had been, he had overlooked two significant wild cards, Sam Smith and his Aullt buddy Nestor.


Chapter TWENTY-ONE by Alan Thatcher

The showcourt was packed for the unscheduled showdown in the first round of the Philadelphia Open as Jess Vale prepared to face the number two seed, Francoise Dutronc.

Normally the house-full signs went up towards the end of the week for the quarter-finals, the semis and the final.

Unknown to the grateful promoters and the Davenport Club, at least a quarter of the audience were police officers in various shades of plain-clothed disguise.

The intriguing story of a supposedly-kidnapped English teenaged girl, playing in this mysterious sport called squash, plus the attendant activities of Eastern European gangsters, drug cartels, money-laundering high-rollers and the interest of the British secret service, had certainly raised a few eyebrows among the Philadelphia Police Department at their Race Street HQ.

Their limited insight into European crime was nothing compared to their lack of knowledge about squash. The usual jokes were batted around until someone had the brains to turn to Google and discover that this whole new sporting universe existed.

“It’s like racquetball,” came the call. “But it’s, like, the British version, with a few Arabs and French guys.”

“But we’re looking at a women’s tournament,” said the Chief. “And it’s right here in town. At the Davenport Club.”

Further searches produced links to mainly British websites which carried reports and pictures of the tournament. It was clearly a big deal in squash, but hardly caused a ripple among the citizens and law-enforcement officers of its host city.

When the head-scratching was over, the Philly cops thought they ought to pass the information up the line to Washington. But before a call could be made, a team of FBI officers had made the 140-mile drive from Washington to support their colleagues in Arch Street, who were just a few blocks away and were already up to speed on the whole operation thanks to intelligence sources in the USA and England.

Many of the smarter cops quickly got up to speed on this new sport and headed for the Davenport Club with a hastily-acquired selection of tracksuits and racquet bags.

The bags did not contain racquets.

+++

When the flight touched down in Philly, Steve Dwyer and Jill Smith were quickly ushered through side doors by their escorting officers.

Travelling in separate cars, officers continued to be highly suspicious of Dwyer but were becoming far more sympathetic to his companion.

This relentless turmoil of fear and a treadmill of emotions left Jill Smith on the brink of a mental breakdown. Much as she loved Steve, she was in way too deep in so many areas. But the hope of seeing her daughter again helped her to stay sane.

When that moment came, she burst into tears.

As the police cars arrived at the Davenport Club, a female officer, who had met them at the airport and accompanied them on the journey downtown, produced an envelope of photographs.

“Is this your daughter?”

Jill collapsed in raging, uncontrollable sobs.

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

 The officer touched Jill’s arm. “We think we know who the kidnappers are, but we need to know if you know them too.”

She produced a file of images but Jill shook her head as each new photograph was passed in front of her.

“We were supposed to meet them in Dubai but they didn’t show up.”

She wiped her tears and pleaded with the officer. “Can I see her now?”

“Not long now. As you know she is playing in this tournament but has been accompanied by some individuals who are of interest to us for non-sporting reasons.

“You say you don’t know them and we believe you. But we can’t allow any unexpected incident to jeopardise today’s operation so we will ask you to be a little more patient, Mrs Smith.

“We promise you that you will be reunited with Jessica before the end of the evening.”

Jill could hardly believe those words.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

+++

The train ride from Boston to Philadelphia took just over six hours. As Sam Smith and his friend Nestor emerged from the cavernous 30th Street Station and looked out across the Schuylkill River, they hailed a cab to the Davenport Club.

Fleetingly, Sam looked around the grand, art deco arrivals hall and thought it would provide a venue to rival the Tournament of Champions held every year at Grand Central Terminal in New York.

But his mind quickly returned to the task in hand. Finding his sister. And dealing with whoever had taken her away.

+++

Steve Dwyer didn’t enjoy his treatment at the hands of the police officers. He also failed to enjoy travelling economy. And he certainly wasn’t enjoying the barrage of questions he was facing from a team of FBI officers in Philadelphia.

His skills at moving money around the globe seemed to fascinate the officers.

They had also found a sudden interest in the game of squash, and the luxury club Steve was building in London.

One officer asked for a list of Steve’s main business associates. And another wondered how many flights he had made to various parts of Europe in the past two years.

Similar questions were being asked of Nick Gaultier in a nearby interview room.

+++

Jessica Smith was quickly into her stride on the Davenport Club’s showcourt.

Sam was desperate to rush over and hug his sister. But he didn’t want to upset her concentration or risk any kind of drama that might damage his plans. He didn’t quite know what those plans were just yet.

Sensibly, he pulled the top of his hoodie over his head and looked around the club to see if he could identify her travelling companions. Several other pairs of eyes were doing exactly the same thing.

The watching police officers were immediately impressed by the athleticism of the two squash players engaged in a gladiatorial battle on the glass court.

They admired the power of the shots, the extraordinary reflexes that enabled them to retrieve seemingly hopeless situations, and the rallies that grew into a length and intensity rarely seen in top-level tennis.

Bianca also admired the play, seated close to the referee with James Matthew and Angus Murray.

Francoise Dutronc was stunned by the fitness and accuracy of this unknown opponent who had won through from qualifying.

Qualifiers never play like this, she thought.

After failing to reach three perfectly placed drives that had landed in the back left corner, she altered her tactics. As the players worked the ball up and down the backhand sidewall, Dutronc changed her footwork pattern so that she deliberately blocked her opponent from reaching the ball.

The referee failed to spot the first incident, and Jessica was denied a let. When the pattern became obvious, she elected to use the video review appeal system to challenge the referee’s decision.

The rules of squash state that once you have played a shot, you must allow your opponent direct access to the ball.  But many players allow subtle variations of footwork and body position to alter the rhythm and the flow of this crucial element of the game.

Most fair-minded players step backwards from a good-length ball to allow just enough room for their opponents to move into the corners, and then skip and shuffle up the middle of the court to get in front of the other player and gain control of the T position.

But not Miss Dutronc. Having struck her backhand drive she tried to move directly back to the T and deny Jessica a clear path to the ball.

It was the first time Jessica had used the video review system. The crowd enjoyed the drama of watching the incident unfold on the screens dotted around the venue and Sam, and most knowledgeable spectators, could instantly see what the French player was up to.

Sam whispered. “Cheating bitch.”    

His pal nodded in agreement.

When the decision “Yes Let” was displayed on the screens, the crowd roared in delight. The replays had shown the French player blocking. And the crowd began cheering the underdog. Even the cops joined in, trying to blend in to the surroundings.

A group of men, huddled on the bleachers near to Jessica’s seat, reacted anxiously to the sudden increase in noise. Two of them instinctively reached for their guns. This action was promptly noted by most of the officers in the crowd, plus the extra camera filming alongside the squash TV crew.

+++

Jill Smith waited outside the squash club, sipping a coffee in a cardboard cup in the back seat of the unmarked police car.

“Your girl is winning,” said the kindly officer. “We just need to deal with these people who we think have been holding her against her will, and then you can see her.”

Jill smiled. “I’m amazed she can concentrate, with all this stuff going on. I certainly couldn’t.”

She asked about Steve, and was told that he was being also being brought to the club.

Two conference rooms at the club had been taken over by the FBI, in preparation for the forthcoming events.

 +++

The crowd sensed that Jessica Smith was on the verge of a sensational victory.

Between games, she sat in her corner with a young couple who poured water, dried her racket grips and gave her fresh towels to wipe her face and hands.

+++

Anatolie Grigoriev was in his hotel suite, waiting for a meeting with a business delegation from Europe.

Text messages from his aides kept him informed of developments at the squash tournament. Then he received another message, from Nick Gaultier, changing the venue of their meeting.

He told Grigoriev that the hotel was being watched and that it would be safer to meet at the squash club. He had commandeered the conference room and persuaded the Russian that no one would be monitoring the members and squash fans coming and going at the Davenport Club.

Back on court, Jessica won the first and second games and the crowd were behind her all the way.

Upstairs in the conference room, Nick Gaultier and Steve Dwyer waited to greet their Russian guest, who arrived with two bodyguards, in addition to the group at courtside.

Always suspicious, Grigoriev stared menacingly at the two men seated on the opposite side of the table.

Dwyer began the conversation.

“I hope that we are all more than satisfied with the anticipated growth of our business partnership.  Financing property development and managing wealth are my specialities, and they are businesses where we can always appear to operate on the right side of the law.

“Being a generous benefactor in areas such as sport helps to develop a popular public image, and that is always a valuable asset. But some of your activities, Anatolie, give rise to concern. If people found out that we were involved with partners who, let me say, offended public morals, then it could tarnish that image.

“The arms trade is one thing. One could merely be operating in a free market buying and selling commodities. But drugs is something else altogether. We understand it must be a lucrative operation but we don’t want to risk our reputation by doing business with people whose activities might bring unwanted attention to ourselves.”

He had read and rehearsed the script, and delivered it perfectly.

Grigoriev, as anticipated, roared like a bear. “Keep your fucking nose out of our business.”

Gaultier and Dwyer both rocked back in their chairs as Grigoriev’s assistants got to their feet.

+++     

On the court, Jessica was 5-2 up in the third game when her desperate opponent decided that her physical tactics were not extreme enough.

After brushing past each other in mid-court, Jessica tumbled to the floor as Dutronc’s racket butt dug into her rib cage. In the next rally, as Jessica tried to move forward to the front of the court, she tripped over her opponent’s deliberately outstretched leg.

Then, despite a warning from the referee, the French player’s frustration boiled over as she unwound a huge backhand swing and the racket followed a horizontal course and smashed into the English girl’s face.

With blood pouring from a split lip, Jessica got to her feet and left the court. She was quickly pursued by the young Russian couple and the group of spectators whose behaviour had been monitored by the watching police officers.

The officers had hoped to contain their operation to the environs of the glass court.

As Jessica disappeared through the doorway to the corridor heading to the dressing rooms, her brother raced down the stairs to help her. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but before he could get anywhere near her the team of undercover officers sprung into action.

Jill panicked and screamed as the call came through to the cars waiting outside.

She dropped her empty coffee cup and begged to be allowed into the club to be with her daughter but the doors had been locked.

Two groups of officers who had been stationed in the locker rooms, supposedly changing before a session in the gym, dipped into their racket bags to grab their weapons.

Three female officers surrounded Jessica and escorted her into the ladies changing room as their colleagues jumped in behind to form a buffer between her and her Eastern European entourage.

“Who the fuck are you?” 

The Russians were taken by surprise. They grabbed their weapons but they were soon outnumbered as more officers poured in from the bleachers.

The first Russian to bring a weapon out into the open was shot dead before he could pull the trigger. Two others tried to flee down the corridor but were jumped on as seemingly innocent bystanders in gym gear wrestled them to the floor. The others, looking at the dead body on the floor, leaking blood into the carefully woven Davenport Club carpet, gave themselves up.

Upstairs, Grigoriev and his goons heard the shot fired and headed towards the exit. Dwyer and Gaultier each had an arm twisted behind his back and were being used as a human shield by the Russian’s henchmen.

The police were waiting.

“Drop your weapons.”

Armed officers in riot gear were waiting outside the boardroom. The meeting had been recorded and the FBI had enough evidence from Dwyer’s script, and the response from the big, burly Russan, to nail the man they were hunting.

Several shots rang out. The first two were fired by Grigoriev’s men. One police officer was wounded in the shoulder. In the mayhem that followed, Gaultier tripped as one of the goons manhandled him away from the door and a bullet struck him in the neck. Blood spurted across the face of the man using him as a shield. The next bullet entered the goon’s eye socket. He collapsed on top of Gaultier and his absence from the front rank exposed Grigoriev to the police marksmen.

Grigoriev also had a gun.

“Drop your weapon.”

The police wanted to take him alive to face the courts but Grigoriev ignored their warning and opened fire.  

Instead of aiming at the police he pointed the gun at Steve Dwyer and fired.

Within a split second, one marksman sent a bullet into Grigoriev’s hand, forcing him to relinquish his weapon, and another shot him in the thigh.

He and Dwyer tumbled to the floor.

Grigoriev and his group were rounded up and herded into the wagons that rolled up outside the club to capture their prey.

With the dressing room secured, and a medic having mopped the blood from Jessica’s face, the police officers finally allowed her to head back to the court.

The poor referee was powerless to control the pandemonium that erupted at courtside but had an important decision to announce to the crowd.

“Conduct penalty against Dutronc for dangerous play. Match awarded to Smith.”

Jessica was still escorted by a group of female police officers, but they broke ranks as a call came through from the car park.

Jill rushed through the gap and she and Jessica fell into each other’s arms.

Sam, who had almost got into a fight with a gorilla of a police officer, finally persuaded him that he was, indeed, Jessica’s brother.

He, too, was allowed through.

Overwhelmed, Jill embraced her two children.

All three could hardly speak through the tears.

Jessica had a lot of explaining to do but that could wait.

“We’ve got all week to listen,” said Jill. “You’ve got a tournament to win.”

“I don’t care about that,” said Jessica. “I just want to come home.”

On the spot, Sam announced that he was quitting the Aullt Academy and coming home, too.

Jill had put Steve Dwyer out of her mind. But her friendly police officer pulled her to one side as Sam and Jess hugged and cried and spoke halting sentences all at the same time.

“Mr Dwyer is in the hospital,” she said. “He was shot during an incident upstairs and may be in the hospital for some time. A Mr Gaultier was also shot. They will be protected during their stay in the hospital and will almost certainly be expected to stay here in Philadelphia to assist with federal investigations.

“You and your family are free to go.”

At that moment Jill’s mobile rang.

Bianca had kept John up to speed with developments. Sober, he was on the line to his wife.

It was a difficult conversation. Both were crying into the phone.

“Jessica’s safe. And Sam’s here as well.” Jill managed to blurt out those two short statements before crying again.

“I’ll be waiting at the airport as soon as you get back,” said John. “I want the family to give it another try.”

Jill, falteringly, agreed.

“Just one condition,” said John.  “We must get rid of that bloody squash club.”

Jill stared at the phone, and looked across at her two smiling children.

“Yes. That game’s finished.”



THE END



About The Authors

STEVE CUBBINS is 57 years old and lives in Whitley Bay, in the North-East of England (not a ‘Geordie’ though, for his first 18 years he was a ‘Brummie’ and has been in the North-East for just 33 years).

An avid squash player ever since his school days he has played team squash for 35 years, played for his County at O45 level once, and after a diet and fitness campaign during the summer of 2011 recently regained the County “C” title after a gap of 15 years.

From running his own club’s leagues and competitions Steve moved into organising events at County level, ran the County Leagues for 15 years and was at the forefront of the internet revolution as he worked on various squash-related websites from the mid-nineties to the present day.

Currently webmaster of SquashSite, Steve spends “far too much time” in front of the computer, as well as several months away from home each year covering tournaments on site.




MICK JOINT
was born in Melbourne, Australia, 41 years ago and began playing squash at age five. He trained at the Australian Institute of Sport with greats Geoff Hunt and Heather McKay.

Mick coached in Argentina, Germany, Australia and Canada before settling into his current position in 2004 as Head Pro at the Detroit Athletic Club in Michigan.

Mick is married with one daughter and authors the entertaining blog, The Squash Joint.




AUBREY WADDY
is an English writer and squash player, on the verge of 65 and what-happens-next! Aubrey is a consultant in the medical device industry, and apart from this and writing, spends his time titrating squash against the diminishing capacity of his bad knee. He returned to the game twenty five years after retiring from a moderately successful amateur career, and surprised himself by achieving selection for the English o-60s Masters team for the 2011 home internationals.

Aubrey’s writing credits include the first ever novel to be set in the world of competitive squash, “Sex and Drugs and Squash’n’Roll”, and in June 2012 he published his second novel, “Just Desserts”. The books are available on Amazon, Kindle etc.

Aubrey has three sons, and lives with his new partner Alison, by fortunate chance - or judicious selection - a physiotherapist, outside of London.

www.aubreywaddy.co.uk




WILL GENS
writes the blog SquashDashersbashers.blogspot.com.

He is passionate about poetry and squash. He is pursuing a graduate degree in Poetry at Adelphi University, writes about squash, coaches squash and when not on the court is working on Wall Street in software testing. 

He lives with his wife, Shyamala, and his son, Kyle, a semi-professional squash pro and classics student at Hunter college. He also has a daughter, Alexandra, living in Florida and planning to attend medical school.

He would someday in this lifetime love to see both a U.S. born player reach the top 10 on the world squash tour and witness the total elimination of petroleum driven cars.




TRACY J. GATES
might be a rock climber if she lived in Colorado, or a surfer if she lived in California, but since moving from Massachusetts to New York City before the millennium, she has devoted a good portion of her life to squash. A book editor from nine to five, she squeezes in writing about squash (and a few other sports and adventures) on her blog, www.squeakyfeet.wordpress.com.



ALAN THATCHER
is a lifelong sports journalist. He started writing for his local paper at the age of 14 and has worked in national newspapers for the past 30 years. Having fallen in love with squash in his 20s, he has promoted a number of major tournaments including the British Open, Liverpool Open and Kent Open. He is also co-promoter of the Canary Wharf Classic and MC and Media Director for the North American Open. A regular commentator for Sky TV down the years, he is a joint founder of World Squash Day and is President of the Kent SRA.



ROB DINERMAN
is a squash “lifer” who stumbled into squash by accident during his time at a New England prep school and has passionately pursued the game ever since, having just completed his 40th competitive season, while writing about the sport virtually throughout that time span. Ranked as high as No. 10 in the World Pro Squash Association (WPSA) hardball tour, he is the only person to have played in the Open division of the U. S. Hardball Nationals for each of the past 17 years. Twice a finalist in that event and with more than 50 tournament wins to his credit, Dinerman co-launched DailySquashReport.com in May 2011 and has been immersed in this enterprise throughout the past 15 months. Urged for years in the wake of his decades as a squash reporter/archivist to undertake the writing of a novel, he regards his participation in this “Club From Hell” project as POSSIBLY constituting a tentative first step in that direction.



JOHN BRANSTON
began playing squash just before turning 50 after many years of tennis and racquetball. He plays three or four times a week and hopes to play all of his fellow authors on their home courts. Originally from Michigan, he and his wife Jenny live in Memphis, where he is columnist for Memphis magazine and the Memphis Flyer, a freelance reporter for national news media, and author of the book Rowdy Memphis. He blogs about racquet sports (A Fan's Notes) at memphisflyer.com.



THE SQUASHIST
is a Swede trapped in an American body. He has played squash since the age of 15, following the classical route of prep school to Ivy League to squash monomaniac. He spends his days as the editorial director of a medical publishing company in New York City and his nights dreaming of being born anew with uncomplaining knees. He is a published short fiction writer who is far too scatter-brained to ever complete a novel. Ever since George W. Bush was infamously elected to a second term he has adopted an emergency exit strategy that requires him to learn Swedish, from the land of his mother’s birth, which is why he is currently engaged in obtaining a Certificate in Scandinavian Languages at NYU.




PETER HEYWOOD is a scientist, a writer and a leadership coach. He discovered squash when he moved to the South-East of England to take up his first ‘proper’ job as a research scientist at a top secret nuclear facility with four courts and a subsidised bar. His career has included spells (as in ‘periods’ not ‘Harry Potter’) in forensic science, pharmaceutical R&D and management consultancy. He recovered from a heart attack to resume playing the game he loves and train as a squash coach. He’s currently writing The Squash Life Book for squash leaders and entrepreneurs. He lives in London within ten minutes walk of his squash club.




TED GROSS was born and raised in San Francisco. He is the publisher of Daily Squash Report.


JAMES ZUG 
is the author of six books including Squash: A History of the Game (Scribner, 2003) and Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear (Penguin, 2010). A senior writer at Squash Magazine since 1998, he writes regularly for Squash Player magazine in London, and has a blog on the game: SquashWord.com. He is the chair of the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame & Museum.



"The Club from Hell" is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, or to any other works of fiction, is entirely coincidental.