The Club from Hell
Chapter FOURTEEN, by Tracy J. Gates
Bianca bounced the squash ball under her racquet in rapid succession, warming it up.
“Middle-aged guys are just so gullible,” she said, feeling the ball now to see if it was ready.
Her opponent nodded as she adjusted her blond ponytail. “Definitely,” she agreed. “They’re easily distracted. Although you’re particularly good at it,” she said, looking her up and down.
Bianca looked down. She was wearing neon bright Flashpoint Asics, a hot pink skirt that matched the freshly dyed streak in her hair, and a Smith College t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. “Not my fault,” she replied. “Only the shirt is mine. Plus, you’re no doubt better. Nice dress.”
Tatiana readjusted the shoulder straps of her silver halter dress. “Well when you’re backing a sportswear designer, you should wear the product. All women run by the way.”
“Nice. Let’s hit, huh? I’m only here on a layover, remember.”
Tatiana grinned. “Right. Serve it up.”
Once the women warmed up, a few other club members stopped to watch their game. It was clear that they weren’t just there for exercise and with wrists precisely cocked, deep wall-hugging rails, and graceful movements around the court, it was evident that they weren’t amateurs either. Tatiana had great hands and moved the ball patiently around the court, while Bianca was the more aggressive of the two, cutting the ball off whenever she could and making overhead volley drops when she was well set up at mid-court. They were well matched, despite their differences in play. Tatiana got the first two games by outwitting her opponent’s athleticism, but Bianca caught on to her tactics by the third game and began mixing it up as well, holding her shots so that Tatiana was more off balance. It worked and they were tied at the end of the fourth game.
Tatiana toweled off her racquet handle before the fifth. “You’re not as rusty as you said you were,” she said. “Where are playing these days?”
“A boy’s boarding school near where I work. There are some pretty good players there. For guys,” Bianca added, winking.
Tatiana raised an eyebrow. “Speaking of. Should we check on where yours is?”
“Oh I told the staff to give him the works in the spa. I’m sure he’s dead asleep by now. He didn’t get much last night, thanks to your Mr. Sly Chennai.” Bianca stifled a yawn. “Then again, I didn’t either.”
“Yes, sorry about that. My brother does like to put on an accent and tell a good long yarn.” Tatiana yawned as well. “And your Mr. Smith must enjoy listening to one. We could barely get him off the phone. Let’s finish up before we both doze off. Plus, I need to fill you in a bit more.”
“Yeah, you do.”
After a shower, Bianca wrapped a thick towel around her and tucked it so it held under one arm. She pulled on the glass door next to the row of marble sinks and a whoosh of steam swirled out and rolled across the ceiling. Bianca walked through the door and into an almost opaque cloud of steam. She couldn’t see a thing.
“Are you in here?”
Tatiana’s voice was somewhere ahead of her and to her right. “Yes, just walk in slowly. I’ve put my hand out.”
Bianca took a careful step, having no idea how large the room was, and saw the perfectly manicured fingernails of her friend reaching out to her. Even as a teenager, Tatiana had been immaculately polished and coiffed, Bianca recalled. They were unlikely friends when they met at the Junior tournaments and camps back in the late 90’s. Bianca Phipps, the scholarship kid with a chip on her shoulder, and Tatiana Grigorieva, the Russian princess—or so she looked. But both were outsiders, albeit on opposite sides, and when Bianca said a few words to her in Russian—thanks to her Ukrainian grandmother—they quickly joined sides. Bianca hadn’t seen that hand, however, for at least ten years. She put her out her own nail-bitten one and touched fingertips so that Tatiana could guide her in.
“Here. Put your towel on the lower bench. I’m on the upper one,” Tatiana said. “Or I’ll make room up here,” she added.
“That’s okay,” Bianca said. It was seriously hot. She’d probably pass out on the upper one. She could make out Tatiana’s body now, or parts of it, through the thick steam. Bianca unwrapped her towel, spread it out on the lower bench, and lay down. She breathed the eucalyptus infused steam and closed her eyes. “So,” she said, “can we talk in here?”
“That’s why I suggested it,” said Tatiana. “Nobody to overhear us. Shall I start or you?”
“You,” said Bianca, stretching so that her toes just brushed the wall. ”Tell me everything.”
“Tell me again what you want to do?” Aman asked her.
Jessica Smith sat in front of him, stretching on the carpet next to the court. “I want to enter the Davenport Open. It’s in Philadelphia this weekend; you could enter me as a wild card.”
“And just how am I going to do that?” Aman looked at her like she was crazy, but she could also see the wheels turning. He had been trapped on the Ekaterina longer than her and a chance to get off the yacht was surely as tantalizing to him as it was to her.
“The whole family’s gone. For the weekend, at least. We must be able to get off without the staff knowing.” She bent at the waist, leaning over her outspread legs and caught the bottom of the couch, pulling her torso forward for a deeper stretch. She looked up at him. “Don’t you want to see how I measure up to other girls? Other women? Don’t you want to see how good a coach you are?”
Aman’s dark eyes stared into hers. “Jessica. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I don’t even know. And it’s not just with Alexi or his father. Someone else is controlling this boat. And the price of getting off is a lot steeper than getting on.”
Jessica took a breath. “What if we pay a price? I win the tournament. You win as coach. And we give them all the credit? It’s win-win-win!”
Die, die, die is more like it, Aman thought. He tipped his head back to gaze a the ceiling. “Let me think about it.”
Jessica brought her legs together and jumped up. She grabbed a jump rope and started hopping on one foot as she spun the rope through the air. “I know I can win,” she told him. “Who practices more than I do?”
“Nobody,” Aman agreed. “Nobody.”
“Nobody knows how to clean up around here,” Jill Smith muttered to herself, picking up used towels left on the floor, on benches, and one hanging over an exercise machine as if it were a ghost. She dumped them all into a large container marked “USED TOWELS” and then went back for the plastic cups hiding in plain and not-so-plain sight. Replacing the water cooler with gleaming glass containers of cucumber and cantaloupe water was a nice gesture on Steve’s part to upscale the place, but she was starting to miss the good old b.y.o.w.b. days.
She was bringing a few pairs of unclaimed eye protectors, a set of car keys, and what looked to be the newest iphone left just outside court three over to the front desk to put in the lost-and-found box, when she heard Steve raise his voice from inside the office.
“Dubai! How am I supposed to get to Dubai by tonight?!”
Jill stopped midstep and instinctively went still. Steve wasn’t one to yell, so it had to be something pretty big. His voice went down, so Jill inched closer to the slightly open door and looked in. He was at his desk facing her and writing something down on a piece of paper. She ducked her head back so that he wouldn’t see her when he looked up. He preferred to keep his business dealings private.
“Well what if I can’t? What if I don’t?” He was whisper yelling now. Jill put her ear next to the doorframe.
“So that’s it then? I show up with the money, she lives. I don’t, she dies. And I’m supposed to believe you because you know she had a Samsung Galaxy?”
Jill sucked in a breath and quickly covered her mouth. Hardly anyone knew that. Steve was tapping on his desk now with his pen, and then barked into the phone, “Well, that’s not how I do business. You want someone who does it sloppy, call her father.”
“What are you doing?”
Jill whipped around. Frank was leaning on the other side of the front desk, playing with the iphone she’d put down.
“Yes, what are you doing, Jill?” Steve asked. He was standing next to her now, fingering a piece of paper in his hand.
Jill snapped her head one way then the other, looking at the useless handyman and her spineless boyfriend. Suddenly, one didn’t look anymore appealing than the other.
“You guys are idiots,” she said. “What am I doing?” She snatched the paper from Steve, grabbed the iphone from Frank and the set of Ferrari keys from the counter and strode to the front door.
“I’m going to Dubai,” she said, shoving the door open with her hip. “To find my daughter.”
Maria Ivanova turned to her daughter. “Nikkolina, stop playing with your food.”
Instead, Nikki picked up a radish carved to look like a rose and threw it over the seat, hitting her brother on the head. A hand came over the headrest and waved the middle finger.
Maria sighed, picked up the tray and gave it to the flight attendant. “Sorry,” she said in English. “It’s a long flight.”
The young woman smiled. “Not too much longer. We’re starting our descent. Can I get you anything else?”
Yes. My own jet. But Maria didn’t say this aloud. Instead she asked for a double espresso. Maybe after the meeting with Anatole, she would have her own jet. She certainly deserved one, keeping her end of the bargain. She leaned back and shut her eyes.
When she opened them, the plane was taxiing on the ground and something near her feet was buzzing.
Nikkolina poked her in the side. “Wake up, Mom, your phone is ringing.”
Maria leaned down, was caught by her seatbelt and sat back up to unclip it. The buzzing stopped just as she fished it out of her bag and the lights came on, signaling that they were at the gate.
“Maria, we’re here,” her husband said obviously and impatiently, leaning on his seatback. He was still annoyed that they were flying commercial.
It wasn’t until they were walking toward Transportation and Baggage that she retrieved her messages. Viktor was striding briskly ahead, his right hand trying to tamp down a cowlick that had sprung up on the flight. Alexi was a half step behind him. And Nikkolina followed them, alternating between a shuffle and a run. They looked like a frumpy family of tourists, but at least she’d gotten them all there. Anatole’s voice was in her ear now, and within a few words she had come to a stand still.
Three heads swiveled back.
Maria ran to catch up with them, pressing more buttons on the phone. “He’s not here,” she explained, out of breath. “He’s gone to some villa it sounds like.”
“What? Where?” demanded Viktor. Alexi looked a little sick.
Maria shook her head. Her sunglasses flew off and her bag slid down her shoulder and bumped her in the head as she bent down to retrieve them.
Nikki groaned and grabbed the phone. She listened a moment and pressed a few more numbers. They all looked at her.
“Philadelphia, Dad. He’s gone to Philly to see a women’s squash tournament.”
TRACY J. GATES might be a rock climber if she lived in Colorado, or a surfer if she lived in California, but since moving from Massachusetts to New York City before the millennium, she has devoted a good portion of her life to squash. A book editor from nine to five, she squeezes in writing about squash (and a few other sports and adventures) on her blog, www.squeakyfeet.wordpress.com.
Next Up: Chapter FIFTEEN by Alan Thatcher