“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
“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
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
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
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,”
“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
“Come on Sam,” John
hopefully stopping a potential skirt argument in its tracks. “We need
to leave in five minutes, maximum.”
Three minutes later Sam
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
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
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
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
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
As Jill was tidying up
John’s office, she
heard Frank meander through the front door. He was twenty minutes late.
“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
“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
“Heater is still on the
Frank. “Just getting it set-up for HeatCo to look at it. They should be
“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,
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
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
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
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
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
“Jill, its John. What’s
“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
repeated. “What, Gerry
finally had enough and killed the old bastard?!”
answered Jill coldly. “Frank did.”
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
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
“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
“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.
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
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
“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
“That’s right, she’s thirteen, but
“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
“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
“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
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
“I’m not taking anything with that
loser,” Jill said sharply.
“Feeling’s mutual,” Frank replied,
staring at his feet. “I’m out of
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
“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
“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.
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’
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
by Tracy J. Gates
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
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
MEH-rrrrrrrr . . .
“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
“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.
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
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
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.
“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.
“You should have eggs,” Alexi
interrupted. “Protein. Don’t you have a
Jess looked down at her skirt. “Yes,
“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
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
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
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
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,”
“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,”
“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
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.
“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
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
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
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.
“Jill, it’s Steve Dwyer here.”
She caught her breath and stumbled on
her reply. “What? Steve! How did
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
“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
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
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
“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
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.
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
“Only a small one,” she said. “I’ve
got to pick Sam up from school
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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,”
“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
“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
“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
“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,”
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.”
“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
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
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,
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“I’ll explain as best I can. But first, any guess as to why she would
“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
“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
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
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
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
‘Same time next week, Jim?’ said
‘Yes Gamal’ said Weston. ‘Why not.’
He left his playing partner and
walked out into the early evening heat.
‘Taxi, Mr. Faulks?’ asked the
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
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 party’s over.’
‘But, I thought –‘
‘One of our sales force is reporting
‘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?’
The line went dead.
Next week’s match at the Heliopolis
Club was most definitely off.
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.
‘She’s the elder sister of this man.’
Thorpe pointed out the third
‘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
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.’
‘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
‘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
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.
‘Yes, ma’am. He’s just left.’
‘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.
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.
‘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
‘Then I insist on helping you feel at
home’ he offered. ‘Tell me. Do you play any games, Miss Grigorieva?’
‘Tatiana. Yes, Mr. Faulks. I do play
She looked into his eyes.
‘In fact, I happen to be very good at
Chapter ELEVEN by
see what you mean, a couple of damn drunks," said Davis Barker, the
Aullt Academy student behavior specialist. "You hungry, kid?"
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.
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
"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
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?"
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."
"Not important. What about your trip back home?"
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.
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."
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."
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."
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
"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
Chapter TWELVE by
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
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
“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
“Okay. Got it. You ready?” Frank passed on the information.
“You’re a champ. You have no idea how much I appreciate it”, said
“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
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 wouldyou think of that, mother
fucker?" The bottle of Scotch was opposite him at the table; hehadn'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 wantedit
so much, the memory of Jessica, and Bianca insisting he remain
clear-headed. Sober and outof
emotional Sing-Sing was incentive enough, but somewhere in the back of
his mind hethought
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
he didn't care how or why but he was going to get her back. "Sorry, my
friend, I'm going tohave
to do it without you, as much as I hate that," he smiled, proud that
another close call withhis
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 outof
a troubled sleep, his neck hurt too because he fell asleep awkwardly on
the second-hand loveseat, which he had garnered
from the alley behind his building -- discarded (and no doubt forgood
reason), it smelled a bit of urine, cat urine, but he couldn't prove
it, doing his best to douseit
in rubbing alcohol. He used to tell his kids when he was cleaning the
house and Jill was at theclub,
"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
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
to his voicemail. "John, this is Bianca, John, where the fuck are you,
pick up...it's Jessica, Imean
it's a lead, a big time lead, I need you to call me back ASAP...shit, I
hope you aren't passedout.
John, please tell me you didn't…"
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,
"Bianca, Chennai, India, what does this have to do with Jessica!" he
"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
“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
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
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
"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'thear
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.
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
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, questionslater,”
Mr. Sivilingam proceeded to explain how his then 13-year-old daughter
was an avid squashplayer
who trained out of a Chennai institute run by a renowned coach of Indiansquash,
Syrill Sancha. She was quite good but a bit of a hot-head, especially
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 butthere's
more." -------------------------------------------- It was 5:00 in the
morning by the time John got off the call with Bianca and Mr.
racing. He had to find his passport. "Where the fuck is the passport? I
can never findthis stuff, I swear if God
lets me fix all of this and my family is safe, I will change, I will
-- entire damn…Jill, I’ve got to call Jill." He pressed the return call
on her number andit
rang, her voicemail picked up....he paused, thinking of her in a sexy
negligee in the arms ofSteve,
Steve the home wrecker, the bastard. He shook that from his head,
“C'mon, focus,” and left Jill a cryptic message.
some big lead on Jessica, I'm going to track it down…” He stoppedhimself,
something told him don't give the whereabouts, don't give her too many
details, she hada
right to know, but Steve, Steve he didn't trust and besides Steve would
usurp him and somehowclaim
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
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 thoughtas
he closed his eyes. Bianca was a nervous flier and furiously thumbed
through the airlinemerchandise
catalogue, not really stopping to check anything out, just furiously
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 youout
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 abouthis business, then a lot
about his daughter’s disappearance, then some amazing articlesabout
Shamini Sivilingam and her squash. She was a squash phenomenon, known
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’tanyone
in the UK mentioned her. Blind squash, is this something out of science
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.
tune came into his head John hummed that “Pinball Wizard” song from the
“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
Chapter FOURTEEN by Tracy J. Gates
bounced the squash ball under her racquet in rapid succession, warming
guys are just so gullible,” she said, feeling the ball now to see if it
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.
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.”
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.”
Let’s hit, huh? I’m only here on a layover, remember.”
grinned. “Right. Serve it up.”
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.
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?”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
you in here?”
voice was somewhere ahead of her and to her right. “Yes, just walk in
slowly. I’ve put my hand out.”
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.
Put your towel on the lower bench. I’m on the upper one,” Tatiana said.
“Or I’ll make room up here,” she added.
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?”
why I suggested it,” said Tatiana. “Nobody to overhear us. Shall I
start or you?”
said Bianca, stretching so that her toes just brushed the wall. ”Tell meeverything.”
me again what you want to do?” Aman asked her.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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, dieis more like it, Aman
thought. He tipped his head back to gaze a the ceiling. “Let me think
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?”
Aman agreed. “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.
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.
How am I supposed to get to Dubai by tonight?!”
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.
what if I can’t? What if I don’t?” He was whisper yelling now. Jill put
her ear next to the doorframe.
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
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.”
are you doing?”
whipped around. Frank was leaning on the other side of the front desk,
playing with the iphone she’d put down.
what are you doing, Jill?” Steve asked. He was standing next to her
now, fingering a piece of paper in his hand.
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.
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.
going to Dubai,” she said, shoving the door open with her hip. “To find
Ivanova turned to her daughter. “Nikkolina, stop playing with your
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.
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?”
My own jet.But Maria didn’t say this
aloud. Instead she asked for a double espresso. Maybe after the meeting
with Anatole, shewouldhave her own jet. She
certainly deserved one, keeping her end of the bargain. She leaned back
and shut her eyes.
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.”
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.
we’re here,” her husband said obviously and impatiently, leaning on his
seatback. He was still annoyed that they were flying commercial.
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!”
heads swiveled back.
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
Where?” demanded Viktor. Alexi looked a little sick.
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.
groaned and grabbed the phone. She listened a moment and pressed a few
more numbers. They all looked at her.
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
Steve Dwyer followed Jill out
of The Vale
Squash Club and caught up with her as she opened the driver’s door of
“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
and are demanding a ransom.”
Jill stared at Steve, overwhelmed to hear
confirmation that her teenage daughter was alive. But terrified to hear
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
after her properly.”
Jill shook her head. “I just don’t know…”
Steve said: “You didn’t ask.”
“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
ritual. A latte with two extra shots and a pastrami sandwich. Same
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
online fraud scams and the armies of Chinese and Eastern European
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
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
rapid advances in a short space of time. Criminals, and those trying to
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
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
His friend had already briefed him on the
crisis he was facing and Matthew instantly mobilised three staff
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
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
the airport. They didn’t want to be delayed at baggage check. They just wanted to finds Jessica and bring
Jill had worried about what Jessica might
be most in need of. Clothes, toiletries, medicine, maybe. After so many
of worry, her anxiety levels were going off the scale. Her emotions
between the joy of holding her in her arms again for the first time in
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
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
It felt incongruous to be drinking the
complimentary champagne that was offered as soon as they ventured past
curtain that separated them from economy class, but she knew it usually
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
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
urges forced him to look for an alternative solution. No-one had ever
mug out of Steve Dwyer in business, and he wasn’t about to surrender
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
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
tournament seen in the UK since the halcyon days of the British Open at
Conference Centre, an era when Jahangir Khan won ten years in a row in
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
Now squash was part of his business, and
his new glass court was designed just like the imposing East
at Canary Wharf, with a mezzanine level for a bar and restaurant
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
George’s Hill Club in Weybridge, the exclusive stockbroker belt in
With The Vale north of the river, he might
not have the opulent surroundings of the richest county in England, but
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
expected in the circumstances, and he wanted to build a business that
provide a solid future for both of her children, as soon as they could
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
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
allowed him to conduct a dual surveillance protocol for his wealthy
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
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
all mobile phone frequencies on the Eastern seaboard and had created
unique access to the highest-level search engines to seek out names and
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
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
able to play was to gain a local spot in the qualifying competition or
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
Steve Dwyer and Jill Smith ate sparingly on
the flight to Dubai. When they touched down, Jill wanted to get off the
as quickly as possible, but Steve insisted on waiting until they were
He also surprised Jill by heading for a
coffee shop once they had gone through customs and ignoring what seemed
urgent calls to his phone.
She couldn’t stop staring around the
terminal, looking for Jessica and her captors. She was almost
She wanted to shout out her
name, and hoped she would come running into her arms on the concourse
world’s biggest duty-free zone, but Steve stayed remarkably calm.
by James Zug
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.” ******
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.
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
Chapter EIGHTEEN by
me, but what the fuck is going on?”
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
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.
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
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.”
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
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?”
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.
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.”
would he do that?” James asked.
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.”
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?”
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?”
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.”
is good, then, very good, we are making real progress here,” James
said. “I will let Steve know what’s going on right away.”
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.”
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….”
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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.”
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.”
Jim, how do you think the Ivanovs and Grigoriev are connected to this?”
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.”
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.
now?” John asked. “We’ve got to go to Philly to get Jessica, that’s all
I care about.”
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?”
explained the hunch that Jessica was playing the tournament as J.W.
Vale and was accompanied by her coach, Aman Hussein.
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.”
I’m going to Philly to check out this tournament,” Angus said.
too,” said Bianca.
three, that’s for damn sure,” said John.
with the Ivanovs there and Grigoriev there, I better get there too,”
Jim said. Or rather Weston Faulks said.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
let’s do it. Let’s go to Philly."
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
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
‘You could say that,’ responded
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
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.’
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘Get him on the first flight, Thorpe.
Let’s give him enough rope to hang himself, shall we?’
‘Oh, and Thorpe?’
‘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
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
And the same mantra.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
He reached inside his track suit top
and felt the gun nestling in its holster under his left armpit. Just in
He bent down, hoisted his racquet
case onto his shoulder and strode towards the building.
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
“Where is this Miss Vale going to end up in the first round?” Eliza
“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
“I think I know,” Jo-Anne said. “In the first round, I think she’ll be
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
“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
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.
TWENTY-ONE by Alan Thatcher
showcourt was packed for the unscheduled
showdown in the first round of the Philadelphia Open as Jess Vale
face the number two seed, Francoise Dutronc.
the house-full signs went up
towards the end of the week for the quarter-finals, the semis and the
to the grateful promoters and the
Davenport Club, at least a quarter of the audience were police officers
various shades of plain-clothed disguise.
intriguing story of a
supposedly-kidnapped English teenaged girl, playing in this mysterious
called squash, plus the attendant activities of Eastern European
drug cartels, money-laundering high-rollers and the interest of the
secret service, had certainly raised a few eyebrows among the
Police Department at their Race Street HQ.
limited insight into European crime
was nothing compared to their lack of knowledge about squash. The usual
were batted around until someone had the brains to turn to Google and
that this whole new sporting universe existed.
like racquetball,” came the call.
“But it’s, like, the British version, with a few Arabs and French guys.”
we’re looking at a women’s
tournament,” said the Chief. “And it’s right here in town. At the
searches produced links to mainly
British websites which carried reports and pictures of the tournament.
clearly a big deal in squash, but hardly caused a ripple among the
law-enforcement officers of its host city.
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
the 140-mile drive from Washington to support their colleagues in Arch
who were just a few blocks away and were already up to speed on the
operation thanks to intelligence sources in the USA and England.
the smarter cops quickly got up to
speed on this new sport and headed for the Davenport Club with a
selection of tracksuits and racquet bags.
did not contain racquets.
flight touched down in Philly,
Steve Dwyer and Jill Smith were quickly ushered through side doors by
in separate cars, officers continued
to be highly suspicious of Dwyer but were becoming far more sympathetic
relentless turmoil of fear and a
treadmill of emotions left Jill Smith on the brink of a mental
as she loved Steve, she was in way too deep in so many areas. But the
seeing her daughter again helped her to stay sane.
moment came, she burst into
police cars arrived at the Davenport
Club, a female officer, who had met them at the airport and accompanied
the journey downtown, produced an envelope of photographs.
collapsed in raging, uncontrollable
Yes, it is.”
officer touched Jill’s arm. “We think we know who the kidnappers are,
need to know if you know them too.”
produced a file of images but Jill
shook her head as each new photograph was passed in front of her.
supposed to meet them in Dubai but
they didn’t show up.”
her tears and pleaded with the
officer. “Can I see her now?”
now. As you know she is playing
in this tournament but has been accompanied by some individuals who are
interest to us for non-sporting reasons.
you don’t know them and we believe
you. But we can’t allow any unexpected incident to jeopardise today’s
so we will ask you to be a little more patient, Mrs Smith.
promise you that you will be reunited with
Jessica before the end of the evening.”
could hardly believe those words.
you,” she whispered.
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
hailed a cab to the Davenport Club.
Sam looked around the grand,
art deco arrivals hall and thought it would provide a venue to rival
Tournament of Champions held every year at Grand Central Terminal in
mind quickly returned to the task
in hand. Finding his sister. And dealing with whoever had taken her
Dwyer didn’t enjoy his treatment at
the hands of the police officers. He also failed to enjoy travelling
And he certainly wasn’t enjoying the barrage of questions he was facing
from a team
of FBI officers in Philadelphia.
skills at moving money around the globe
seemed to fascinate the officers.
also found a sudden interest in
the game of squash, and the luxury club Steve was building in London.
officer asked for a list of Steve’s
main business associates. And another wondered how many flights he had
various parts of Europe in the past two years.
questions were being asked of Nick
Gaultier in a nearby interview room.
Smith was quickly into her stride
on the Davenport Club’s showcourt.
desperate to rush over and hug his
sister. But he didn’t want to upset her concentration or risk any kind
that might damage his plans. He didn’t quite know what those plans were
he pulled the top of his hoodie
over his head and looked around the club to see if he could identify
travelling companions. Several other pairs of eyes were doing exactly
watching police officers were
immediately impressed by the athleticism of the two squash players
engaged in a
gladiatorial battle on the glass court.
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
in top-level tennis.
also admired the play, seated close
to the referee with James Matthew and Angus Murray.
Dutronc was stunned by the
fitness and accuracy of this unknown opponent who had won through from
never play like this, she
failing to reach three perfectly
placed drives that had landed in the back left corner, she altered her
As the players worked the ball up and down the backhand sidewall,
changed her footwork pattern so that she deliberately blocked her
reaching the ball.
referee failed to spot the first
incident, and Jessica was denied a let. When the pattern became
elected to use the video review appeal system to challenge the
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
this crucial element of the game.
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
front of the other player and gain control of the T position.
Miss Dutronc. Having struck her
backhand drive she tried to move directly back to the T and deny
clear path to the ball.
the first time Jessica had used the
video review system. The crowd enjoyed the drama of watching the
unfold on the screens dotted around the venue and Sam, and most
spectators, could instantly see what the French player was up to.
whispered. “Cheating bitch.”
nodded in agreement.
decision “Yes Let” was displayed
on the screens, the crowd roared in delight. The replays had shown the
player blocking. And the crowd began cheering the underdog. Even the
joined in, trying to blend in to the surroundings.
of men, huddled on the bleachers
near to Jessica’s seat, reacted anxiously to the sudden increase in
of them instinctively reached for their guns. This action was promptly
most of the officers in the crowd, plus the extra camera filming
squash TV crew.
Smith waited outside the squash club,
sipping a coffee in a cardboard cup in the back seat of the unmarked
girl is winning,” said the kindly
officer. “We just need to deal with these people who we think have been
her against her will, and then you can see her.”
smiled. “I’m amazed she can
concentrate, with all this stuff going on. I certainly couldn’t.”
about Steve, and was told that he
was being also being brought to the club.
conference rooms at the club had been
taken over by the FBI, in preparation for the forthcoming events.
sensed that Jessica Smith was on
the verge of a sensational victory.
games, she sat in her corner with a
young couple who poured water, dried her racket grips and gave her
to wipe her face and hands.
Grigoriev was in his hotel suite,
waiting for a meeting with a business delegation from Europe.
messages from his aides kept him
informed of developments at the squash tournament. Then he received
message, from Nick Gaultier, changing the venue of their meeting.
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
monitoring the members and squash fans coming and going at the
court, Jessica won the first and
second games and the crowd were behind her all the way.
in the conference room, Nick
Gaultier and Steve Dwyer waited to greet their Russian guest, who
two bodyguards, in addition to the group at courtside.
suspicious, Grigoriev stared
menacingly at the two men seated on the opposite side of the table.
began the conversation.
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
to operate on the right side of the law.
generous benefactor in areas such
as sport helps to develop a popular public image, and that is always a
asset. But some of your activities, Anatolie, give rise to concern. If
out that we were involved with partners who, let me say, offended
morals, then it could tarnish that image.
trade is one thing. One could
merely be operating in a free market buying and selling commodities.
is something else altogether. We understand it must be a lucrative
but we don’t want to risk our reputation by doing business with people
activities might bring unwanted attention to ourselves.”
read and rehearsed the script, and
delivered it perfectly.
as anticipated, roared like a
bear. “Keep your fucking nose out of our business.”
and Dwyer both rocked back in
their chairs as Grigoriev’s assistants got to their feet.
court, Jessica was 5-2 up in the
third game when her desperate opponent decided that her physical
not extreme enough.
brushing past each other in
mid-court, Jessica tumbled to the floor as Dutronc’s racket butt dug
rib cage. In the next rally, as Jessica tried to move forward to the
the court, she tripped over her opponent’s deliberately outstretched
despite a warning from the referee, the
French player’s frustration boiled over as she unwound a huge backhand
and the racket followed a horizontal course and smashed into the
blood pouring from a split lip,
Jessica got to her feet and left the court. She was quickly pursued by
young Russian couple and the group of spectators whose behaviour had
monitored by the watching police officers.
officers had hoped to contain their
operation to the environs of the glass court.
Jessica disappeared through the doorway
to the corridor heading to the dressing rooms, her brother raced down
stairs to help her. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but before
get anywhere near her the team of undercover officers sprung into
panicked and screamed as the call came
through to the cars waiting outside.
dropped her empty coffee cup and begged
to be allowed into the club to be with her daughter but the doors had
groups of officers who had been
stationed in the locker rooms, supposedly changing before a session in
dipped into their racket bags to grab their weapons.
female officers surrounded Jessica
and escorted her into the ladies changing room as their colleagues
behind to form a buffer between her and her Eastern European entourage.
fuck are you?”
Russians were taken by surprise. They grabbed
their weapons but they were soon outnumbered as more officers poured in
Russian to bring a weapon out
into the open was shot dead before he could pull the trigger. Two
to flee down the corridor but were jumped on as seemingly innocent
in gym gear wrestled them to the floor. The others, looking at the dead
the floor, leaking blood into the carefully woven Davenport Club
Grigoriev and his goons heard the
shot fired and headed towards the exit. Dwyer and Gaultier each had an
twisted behind his back and were being used as a human shield by the
police were waiting.
officers in riot gear were waiting
outside the boardroom. The meeting had been recorded and the FBI had
evidence from Dwyer’s script, and the response from the big, burly
nail the man they were hunting.
shots rang out. The first two were
fired by Grigoriev’s men. One police officer was wounded in the
the mayhem that followed, Gaultier tripped as one of the goons
away from the door and a bullet struck him in the neck. Blood spurted
the face of the man using him as a shield. The next bullet entered the
eye socket. He collapsed on top of Gaultier and his absence from the
exposed Grigoriev to the police marksmen.
also had a gun.
police wanted to take him alive to face
the courts but Grigoriev ignored their warning and opened fire.
of aiming at the police he pointed
the gun at Steve Dwyer and fired.
split second, one marksman sent a
bullet into Grigoriev’s hand, forcing him to relinquish his weapon, and
shot him in the thigh.
Dwyer tumbled to the floor.
and his group were rounded up and
herded into the wagons that rolled up outside the club to capture their
dressing room secured, and a medic
having mopped the blood from Jessica’s face, the police officers
allowed her to head back to the court.
referee was powerless to control
the pandemonium that erupted at courtside but had an important decision
announce to the crowd.
penalty against Dutronc for
dangerous play. Match awarded to Smith.”
was still escorted by a group of
female police officers, but they broke ranks as a call came through
rushed through the gap and she and
Jessica fell into each other’s arms.
had almost got into a fight with a
gorilla of a police officer, finally persuaded him that he was, indeed,
was allowed through.
Jill embraced her two
could hardly speak through the
had a lot of explaining to do but
that could wait.
got all week to listen,” said Jill.
“You’ve got a tournament to win.”
care about that,” said Jessica. “I
just want to come home.”
spot, Sam announced that he was
quitting the Aullt Academy and coming home, too.
put Steve Dwyer out of her mind.
But her friendly police officer pulled her to one side as Sam and Jess
and cried and spoke halting sentences all at the same time.
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
and will almost certainly be expected to stay here in Philadelphia to
with federal investigations.
your family are free to go.”
moment Jill’s mobile rang.
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.
safe. And Sam’s here as well.”
Jill managed to blurt out those two short statements before crying
waiting at the airport as soon as
you get back,” said John. “I want the family to give it another try.”
condition,” said John.“We must get rid of
that bloody squash club.”
stared at the phone, and looked across
at her two smiling children.
That game’s finished.”
THE END About The Authors
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
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
WILL GENS writes the blog
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
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,
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 DINERMANis a squash “lifer” who stumbled into
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
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.
HEYWOODis 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
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.
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