The Club from Hell
Chapter FIFTEEN, by Alan Thatcher
“No. You can’t go on your own. Absolutely not.”
Steve Dwyer followed Jill out of The Vale Squash Club and caught up with her as she opened the driver’s door of his Ferrari.
“It could be dangerous. I’m coming with you. Let me drive. We’ll get to the airport quicker that way.”
Jill silently acquiesced.
“Just tell me what’s going on. Who was that on the phone? What did they want?”
Steve fired up the Ferrari as Jill clicked her seatbelt. “Sounded like Russians. Maybe Mafia. They say they have Jessica and are demanding a ransom.”
Jill stared at Steve, overwhelmed to hear confirmation that her teenage daughter was alive. But terrified to hear that she is most likely in the hands of Russian gangsters.
“What else did they say? Have they hurt her? Is she OK?” The emotion was too much. Tears rolled down Jill’s face as she grappled with the enormity of the situation.
Steve moved his left hand off the steering wheel and grasped Jill’s right hand.
“We can only hope she’s OK. We know she phoned Sam from New York and we can only hope that these people are looking after her properly.”
Jill shook her head. “I just don’t know…”
Steve said: “You didn’t ask.”
“How much they wanted.”
“I’m too frightened to ask.” Her voice trailed off again. “How much was it?”
“Twenty million dollars.”
James Matthew’s iPhone beeped quietly in his pocket to alert him to a new message.
He was sitting in the Starbucks opposite his office in the Upper East Side, New York. His morning coffee break was a ritual. A latte with two extra shots and a pastrami sandwich. Same every day for the last six months since he moved down from Boston.
This helped him operate closer to the big bucks on offer from frightened Wall Street corporations who were terrified of online fraud scams and the armies of Chinese and Eastern European hackers who were intent on destabilising the Western economy.
He licked the foam off the latte and put his cardboard cup down. A computer genius, Matthew had made rapid advances in helping major corporations improve their online security.
It was a natural extension of the business to provide physical security to some of his clients. The security game had made rapid advances in a short space of time. Criminals, and those trying to resist them, needed to be up to speed with the latest technology.
Keeping up with the criminals, or second-guessing their next moves, were all part of the service.
As an ex-hacker, Matthew was perfectly placed to sniff out the latest trends in cyber-crime.
And he had learned very quickly that smart, athletic, physical enforcement was equally essential to the brainpower needed to be a major player in this booming industry.
This particular message told him that an old friend needed urgent help in a far-away country.
They had been team-mates on the college squash team.
His friend had already briefed him on the crisis he was facing and Matthew instantly mobilised three staff members to head for JFK.
There were two flights a day to Dubai. They needed to be on the 11.20am flight that got them into Dubai 12 hours and 30 minutes later. They would arrive at 07.50 local time.
He hoped they would be in time to help.
The flight time from London Heathrow to Dubai was six hours and 56 minutes.
Dubai is four hours ahead of London in the spring. The 20.40 Emirates flight was scheduled to land at 06.30.
After racing home to grab passports and pack the barest of essentials into two carry-on bags, Steve and Jill headed for the airport. They didn’t want to be delayed at baggage check. They just wanted to finds Jessica and bring her home.
Jill had worried about what Jessica might be most in need of. Clothes, toiletries, medicine, maybe. After so many months of worry, her anxiety levels were going off the scale. Her emotions ricocheted between the joy of holding her in her arms again for the first time in almost a year, and her fears that something could go terribly, badly wrong.
They settled into their seats in First Class and Steve tried to coax Jill into relaxing as much as she could.
“Try to get some sleep. The Russians say they will make contact when we land. They obviously hadn’t looked at the flight schedules when they called earlier.”
The stewardess brought Jill blankets and an extra pillow as she curled up in a ball in her luxury seat and tried to follow Steve’s instructions.
It felt incongruous to be drinking the complimentary champagne that was offered as soon as they ventured past the curtain that separated them from economy class, but she knew it usually sent her to sleep fairly quickly.
It did the trick and she was soon quietly snoozing on the plane as it soared above West London before heading south.
As Jill slept, Steve was busy preparing a back-up plan for their Dubai meeting.
The cash was not an issue. He would pay much more to see Jessica returned safely to her mother, but his competitive urges forced him to look for an alternative solution. No-one had ever made a mug out of Steve Dwyer in business, and he wasn’t about to surrender that record to a bunch of lowlife scumbags who were bartering Jessica’s life.
After an exchange of emails, he thought about shutting down his iPhone. Instead, he opened up a series of documents that set out his ambitious plans for The Vale Squash Club.
His makeover involved an all-glass showcourt, and he wanted to launch it in style with the biggest and best tournament seen in the UK since the halcyon days of the British Open at Wembley Conference Centre, an era when Jahangir Khan won ten years in a row in front of sell-out crowds of more than 3,000.
Steve was a big fan of the Canary Wharf Classic, a tournament he had always headed for when he was in London on business.
Now squash was part of his business, and his new glass court was designed just like the imposing East Wintergarden venue at Canary Wharf, with a mezzanine level for a bar and restaurant suspended above the backwall seating.
That would enable the club to build a reputation, like Canary Wharf, for high-level corporate hospitality.
He had made site visits to inspect the permanent glass courts in Manchester, Sheffield and the new one at the luxurious St George’s Hill Club in Weybridge, the exclusive stockbroker belt in Surrey.
With The Vale north of the river, he might not have the opulent surroundings of the richest county in England, but he had different ambitions, altruistic as well as commercial.
He had finally hooked up again with the love of his life, Jill Smith, they were living together as happily as could be expected in the circumstances, and he wanted to build a business that would provide a solid future for both of her children, as soon as they could be reunited.
It would also provide a massive injection of hope into a game which had lost too many clubs in the capital.
James Matthew stayed in his office for the rest of the day. The next trip to Starbucks was undertaken by one of his staff, who returned with another latte and two bars of chocolate.
As he unwrapped the chocolate and sipped his coffee, he stared at one large screen then another. His satellite links allowed him to conduct a dual surveillance protocol for his wealthy client.
Despite being alerted to the blackmail demands of the alleged kidnappers in Dubai, and his client’s natural inclination to fly out there immediately to bring a hasty conclusion to the situation, he was not convinced that the solution would be so simple.
Sure, he had sent three of his best security guys on the next Emirates flight from JFK, but he was also monitoring all mobile phone frequencies on the Eastern seaboard and had created his own unique access to the highest-level search engines to seek out names and key words that might lead him to the kidnappers of Jessica Smith.
He had picked up chatter about squash, and a women’s tournament in Philadelphia that had accepted a late entry from an unknown European player.
With his extensive background in the sport, he knew tournaments did not run that way.
If it was a WSA tournament, there would have been a closing date for entries and the only way a non-member would be able to play was to gain a local spot in the qualifying competition or a wild card in the main draw.
A late entry from a non-WSA member simply shouldn’t happen. There was only one answer. They had bought their way in.
Steve Dwyer and Jill Smith ate sparingly on the flight to Dubai. When they touched down, Jill wanted to get off the plane as quickly as possible, but Steve insisted on waiting until they were the last to leave.
He also surprised Jill by heading for a coffee shop once they had gone through customs and ignoring what seemed like urgent calls to his phone.
She couldn’t stop staring around the terminal, looking for Jessica and her captors. She was almost hysterical with fear.
She wanted to shout out her daughter’s name, and hoped she would come running into her arms on the concourse above the world’s biggest duty-free zone, but Steve stayed remarkably calm.
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.
Next Up: Chapter SIXTEEN by James Zug