The Club from Hell
Chapter SIXTEEN by James Zug
Thirty-five hundred miles from the old stone walls of the Vale Squash Club, Steve and Jill and John and Bianca bumped into each other in the Dubai International Airport.
“What are you doing here?” Steve demanded. He had a large cup of coffee in his hand; the domed lid had a little bit of plastic which brushed his nose when he drank.
What are you doing here?” John said. “Together—I thought you were breaking up.” Steve, wearing a new, crimson Harvard squash cap, moved closer, partially blocking John’s view of Jill. For a second, John thought about going after Steve, but he remembered, with sickening dread, about his foolish attack on Gerry. He immediately deflated.
“We’re looking for Jess,” John continued lamely.
“So are we.”
“We think she’s in the India,”
“India? We think she’s in Dubai,” Steve said, with a lacerating grin. “I’ve talked with her captors, some Russian mobsters.”
“Russian mobsters in Dubai,” Bianca jumped in. “Well, that should narrow it down considerably.”
“Who the hell are you,” said Jill, her eyes flashing from her formerly hapless ex-husband to this young, nubile woman with a nose ring, a purple streak in her hair and the hint of a tattoo peeking out from under her Capri pants.
“I’m Bianca Phipps. I work with Angus Murray.
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “You’re with Angus? He never said anything about an assistant.”
“Partner,” Bianca corrected him. “I met him when I worked at the Weekly Scene in Devon—you know, near Aullt.” She added, looking at his hat, “I went to Wellesley.”
Steve was about to throw out a Hasty Pudding joke about her alma mater, but Jill interrupted. “Enough about America. What’s this about India, John?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Bianca came up with it.”
“I know the plan,” Steve said. “We are going to meet with the kidnappers, give them the money and get Jessica. You guys can go home. I’ve got this operation under control”
“Go home?” John said.
“Sounds good,” Bianca said cheerfully. “You guys look like you know what’s going on. We didn’t find out anything here in Dubai. Just a dead-end.”
John blurted out: “A dead end? You, we—“
“That’s right,” Bianca said. “We got nothing. But I did get in a good game of squash this afternoon. Some damn good players at the Burj. And,” she added looking straight at Steve, “a great steam room.”
John and Bianca had then gone to the counter to check in to the British Airways flight. His head was doing triple Salchows. The woman in the starched BA suit clicked away at her computer for nearly a minute before acknowledging them.
“Yes, your flight to London leaves in one hour,” she concluded after looking up their reservation.
“London?” said John to the woman.
“Yes, London, dear” said Bianca, wrapping her arm around John’s waist.
“What about Chennai?” John said, half to himself.
“I’ve got the story. We don’t need Chennai.” She laughed a laugh that sounded like a light rainshower.
“What do you mean?” John wiped his forehead as if it was wet.
“Let’s get our boarding passes and I’ll tell you,” Bianca said, smiling slyly at the woman: they were honeymooners on a global scavenger hunt.
They went to their boarding gate and sat down. John went to the water fountain near the bathrooms to refill his water bottle. A lukewarm spray dribbled out. He couldn’t get his bottle more than half-filled. Typical.
He sat down. Bianca reported about what Tatiana Gregorieva had told her in the steam room. “Jessica’s not in Dubai. Or in India. She’s on a yacht in the Atlantic.”
“How do you know? What about Steve and the kidnappers in Dubai.”
Bianca ignored the questions. “Tatiana’s sister is married to a very bad dude. His name is Viktor. She mentioned drugs, something about heroin coming out of southwestern Afghanistan and going through Iran. Viktor is knee-deep in some serious shit. Tatiana and her brother have fallen out with the sister and Viktor. Family dynamics. You can’t take Russia out of the Russian, that kind of thing. Tatiana said some English girl was on the sister’s yacht—fancy ship the length of a city block. Had a squash court. The girl trained there, along with Tatiana’s niece.
“She’s been living on a yacht?”
“Yes, Viktor has a court—all-glass in fact—and a pro, workout room, the works. Probably a steam room. Tatiana said the yacht was in the North Atlantic last week when she talked to her sister. That was all she knew.”
“Maybe New York?” said John hopefully, remembering the call Sam had gotten at boarding school. That had looked like a dead end. Maybe it wasn’t.
“Right. And one more thing. We’ve got more company than just Steve and Jill. Tatiana said some guy from the MI6 was snooping around Dubai asking questions about Viktor. They played squash, she said. She crushed him 3-0 and then the split the two after-games, giving him a bone.”
“How did she know he was MI6?
“He spoke fluent Arabic and fluent Russian, both without an accent. The only guys who just happen to know both those languages and can speak them without an accent are intelligence guys. And besides, Tatiana said he wanted to play to nine, British scoring. Old-school. MI6.
Back in London, John and Bianca took the bus from Heathrow straight into Victoria Station. “6£,” John thought. “Utter larceny they charge four times that on the train to Paddington where no one wants to go anyway, except for a Peruvian bear in a duffel coat.”
They got out and walked around the corner to get their bearings. They were travelers of the modern age, stunned by the deathless hours in steel cocoons with only distant piles of clouds as landscape. They were unsure what day it was, what time it was. The quiet of a leafy, back-street Belgravia morning descended upon them. John wanted to lie down and sleep. He was inexhaustibly exhausted.
Bianca’s hotel was above some Irish bar in Crouch End or something, John couldn’t remember, just far far away. She peered at her phone, both hands gripping and thumbs tapping as if she was making a rugby goalpost and a classmate was about to kick a folded-up triangle of paper through the uprights. She said something about checking in with Angus to track the yacht and then going to a tattoo convention in Wapping. “It’s a big deal,” she said when she saw John slightly roll his eyes. “International convention. And I might change my hair color—green, red, now purple. Am thinking orange. Anyway, where’s Wapping? She asked.
“Down by Tower Bridge, near Traitor’s Gate.”
As Bianca blithely walked away towards the Underground, John sent his rope-knuckled fingers into his pocket to check his phone for the first time since leaving London forty-four hours earlier. He had just one measly text. It was from Kristin Selby. “WE NEED TO TALK” was all it said.
John groaned. The last thing he wanted was to revisit all the trouble with her father death. Hadn’t the lawyers sorted it out? Walter was a good chap and it was all an accident. John felt whipsawed by the past week, a ragged towel in an industrial washing machine. He had to break the rhythm. John loved to play squash as if it was a dance. He liked the flow. He almost always hit a cross-court when faced with a short boast. It just felt better that way. He couldn’t improvise well. He was terribly at deception. He could beat players with his good length and width but against anyone at his skill level, he got crushed because he was too predictable.
He texted Kristen: “COMING NOW. SEE U AT CLEVELAND IN 15 MINS?”
Let’s see, he thought to himself, eyeing the pedestrians on Ebury Street, “In the past two days, I’ve taken the Tube, a plane, a limousine, a taxi, a plane and a bus. What’s left?” Just then a yellow London pedicab came cycling past. John hailed him, flung his tiny black wheelie-bag in the seat, the long handle still periscoped out and sat down. “Cleveland Square,” John barked. He was about to ask if the biker knew his A to Z but his phone buzzed like a rasping armidillo. “YES,” flashed Kristin’s text. “NOW.”
Ten minutes later the pedicab wheeled John slowly pulled through Hyde Park. The grass was flecked with sunbathers and picnickers, the vitamin-starved English desperately savoring the last hints of sunshine before winter. A queue of kids clambered on the pirate ship in the Lady Di playground. Kristin lived in a spacious flat in a mews near Cleveland Square. She was waiting at the door, her face uplifted, her tight blue tee-shirt swimming just below John’s eyeline. She gave him a long, lingering hug and let him inside. She was solicitious. She took his bag. She made tea. They sat in her tiny patio in the back, surrounded by white stucco walls. He told her about the mad trip to Dubai, leaving out most of what Bianca had learned in the Burj Khalifa Sports Club steam room.
“I’m so so so sorry about what happened after Daddy died,” Kristin said, putting her mug down. “I know you’ve had a rotten few months. I was pretty upset about Daddy. First Mummy and then two years later him. In between Simon. I was all alone. My lawyer said he had talked with Nick, that there was a lot more to the Vale Squash Club than just a couple of squash players trying to make a club go. I had a lot of debt at the time. Simon had moved out, leaving me with the mortgage on this flat—I couldn’t sell, it was underwater.” Simon was her ex-boyfriend, a nasty chap from Essex who ran a garden furniture store. He had the intelligence of a used Q-tip. He was probably at the tattoo convention now, hitting on Bianca.
“What do you mean, more to the club?”
“Nick had told him that the lottery was a joke.”
“A joke? It was £300,000. Enough to buy a squash club.” And almost a Jaguar, John silently added.
“Yes, but wasn’t there something odd about the lottery?”
“Sure,” John said hesitantly, not sure at all. He didn’t want to get into it. Did Jack go back to the old man with the magic beans and ask for an explanation about the goddamn beanstalk? “It was a bit strange. We never bought tickets to the lottery. It just came out of the blue. Jill said she had a ticket, but I didn’t see it. We met them at some offices in Slough and they gave us the money. No publicity, they said, which we were fine about—didn’t want my cousins to find out or they’d come begging. Sam was disappointed: he wanted to hold that oversized check they have for the photographs.”
“So you never inquired about the lottery, this money just appearing on your doorstep? That takes the biscuit.”
“No, no, Nick said it was all legit. The money was real. And the winnings were not even regarded as income so Revenue & Customs wouldn’t tax it.”
“Did Nick say anything else?”
“No.” John’s eyes fastened onto her neck, her clavicle freckled and tanned, the wire-taut tendons above. He wanted to curl up there and sleep.
“It just was that Daddy’s death was so weird. He was all fired up about something. He had been retired for years and seemed to have nothing going on in his life besides squash. What is a retired accountant to do? Squash isn’t like golf, it doesn’t soak up the whole day. Then Daddy had this burst of energy. He texted me a couple of times in the week before he died, saying he had a great new idea, something that was going to make he and I a ton of money. It was all very vague. I have the texts still.”
Kristin looked at him as she leaned over to tug her phone from the back left pocket of her jeans She had been laughably chaste when they had their affair, but now she was flirtatious. She scrolled down and clicked and scrolled and then handed the phone over to John. “WE HAVE A LEAD ON THE VALE.” “THE VALE CONNECTED TO BIG INT’L OPERATION.” “MORE TOMORROW.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange,” Kristin said, after a silence. “First you get all this money to buy the club and then Daddy dies from a falling heater and then some guy from America, this Steve Dwyer tosser with a Ferrari, just motors in and saves the club?”
The boat left her on a pier on the Hudson. Jessica slipped her arms through the straps of her squash shoulder bag and walked east. She had stuffed her bag with half a dozen coordinated outfits, racquets and sneakers. Nikki would be angry about that. Andre had given her five new $20 bills, and Anan had rowed her ashore from the yacht before dawn. It had been easy. She moved along the concrete with little jets of exhiliration firing through her mind. It felt great to be on land. She knew she had a couple of hours before Alexi or Viktor would become aware of her absence and by then she’d be long gone.
She walked past shuttered strip clubs and art galleries of Chelsea, She stopped on Ninth and got a warm bagel. The shop smelled so strongly of baking bread, Jessica almost wanted to stay there. She spread cream cheese: the white knife, the grey tub of cream cheese. It was all so simple and beautiful. But she moved on to Penn Station and waited for the bus.
As the bus bolted away from 31st Street and headed towards Lincoln Tunnel, she thought she saw Sam. Two teenagers walking down Tenth. No, he would be up at Aullt, not down in New York? But wait. December 9th. Maybe the term was over, maybe these American schools with their elongated holidays had let him out. She stood up and pressed her nose against the glass but the bus hurtled through the intersection. Sam? She whispered. No, it couldn’t be him. There must be a hundred boys within a thousand yards right now who looked just like Sam.
Fifteen bucks and two hours later she was standing next to 30th Street Station. She walked east again, this time over the Schuykill and into downtown Philadelphia. Everything was verdant and lush. Bushes still held green. The streets were named after trees. She found the club, just off Walnut, a blue and red flag flapping in the breeze. She went in. She told the porter she was here for the Davenport tournament. She took the elevator up to the third floor and walked past the barber shop and the square swimming pool and into the locker room. No one was there. She found an empty stall, took off her clothes, lifted a towel from the stack on the table and walked into the bathroom. The club was famous for its showers. For the first time in almost a year, she could relax. She turned the two metal knobs. A giant circular disk the size of a trash can lid emitted a torrent of water. The water cascaded over her face, filling her ears. She couldn’t hear a thing. Not one thing.
John had played squash with Nick Gaultier for the last two years of university. Nick had been a cocky player, despite playing down on the ladder. He always boasted about past wins. He talked about pro players he had trained with, partied with—good mates—and then, when you asked the pro about Nick, they’d said, “Who?”
One year when they played Nottingham, John had beaten a very good player at #1, someone who had been on the national junior team. Nick’s first reaction after the match was that he now had indirect over some of the best players in the country. But, John had thought, as Nick patted his back and walked away, you don’t have an indirect—you’ve never beaten me.
John went to Nick’s offices. They were in the Gherkin, the new, pickled-shaped skyscraper in the City. When John entered his office, he was standing by his desk, putting files in a briefcase. His white Oxford shirt hung kempt, without a fold or crease, as though the work he did couldn’t touch him. “I’m moving to the Shard next month,” Nick told John straight away after the assistant had shut the door. “The view is better.” He settled his lanky frame into a leather chair. “How’s your squash?” Was there a hint of disdain there?
Not eager to compare notes, John started to talk about a niggling hamstring.
Nick interrupted. “Oh, I’ve been playing a lot this fall, getting on court almost every day. I’m going to play in a couple of 35s tournaments.”
“I came here to talk about the Vale.”
“Sounds like things are taking shape over there now.”
John winced. “I don’t know. Steve and Jill aren’t there right now. They are in Dubai.” John looked hard at Nick to see if that meant anything to Nick, but.his face betrayed no emotion. “Stephanie’s running it while they are away. So who is the Dwyer guy?”
“Steve’s a fantastic chap, really top-notch. Played at Harvard. Loves fast cars. He’s got plans to build the Vale into THE club in London. Glass showcourt, an American doubles court. Ambitious.”
John knew squash. He had read a history of St. George’s Hill, the squash club in Weybridge; he knew how you built up a club. You didn’t go from zero to sixty in one blink of an eye. You had to shore up the fundamentals, a dependable client base, a solid teaching pro, night leagues, Saturday morning junior clinics. He knew how to run a club. “Dwyer’s up to more than just squash. Where does he get his money?”
“I couldn’t say, John. I mean, it’s in off-shore accounts, so I don’t know the story. He’s put up all these health clubs in the States, dozens of them, very successful. He knows the industry.”
“What about the lottery, Nick. Wasn’t that just a peculiar thing?”
“The lottery—what do you mean?” He suddenly was speaking slowly, pausing after every word like an invigilator reading directions for an exam.
“Yes, we never got into the newspapers or the tele, nothing was said. Just here’s your money. Jill never played the lottery.”
“What are you saying, that someone just decided to give you £300,000 because you’re a nice guy? I remember the correspondence on it. It was all legit. Jill never played the lottery. Really? I think there’s a lot about Jill you didn’t know.”
A note of discord had crept into Nick’s voice, like a string out of tune. John instantly realized that Nick had lied after Walter died. John had chosen the public liability after all. “I remember the correspondence,” Nick had said that awful day, but he never produced any of it. John had chosen the insurance. Nick just hadn’t filed it. Same words again, a vocalized puff of air: I remember the correspondence. Indeed.
John laughed—his first laugh in months. He got up to leave. “Goodbye, Nick. You always were a bit of a wanker.”
John went home. He was a cicada that had spent years underground, just focused on staying alive. Now he had burrowed back into the light. He mopped away the sour, damp smell in his flat with a bucket of alcohol. He opened the windows. He got a neighbor to help him lug the love seat back down to the alley. He ran a load of laundry. He put away the dishes that had sat, clean, in his dishwasher for a month. He took out the rubbish. He checked his email and mail. He went through all the paperwork he had on the Vale.
He emailed two contacts in the Caymans. Off-shore for Americans meant the Caymans, not the Channel Islands or Malta. John had been to the Caymans for their women’s tournament, a spectacular pro event, and had gotten to know a lot of the bankers on the island. Everything was confidential, everyone tight-lipped but John had done them some favors when they came to London: getting them matches, waiving their court fees, plying them with tickets to West End shows, introduced them to some City bigwigs. Quid pro quo. Especially when you’ve gotten them some quid.
Within a day, John had pieced together the story. The Vale wasn’t just a squash club. It was a laundering operation, a way for money to be washed and cleaned and pressed and sent back out into the world.
Avery Wilberforce, Nick Gaultier and Steve Dwyer. They were all involved.
John realized that accident with the heater was no accident. Walter had found something out.
In the morning, John drove over to the Vale. The parking lot was perfection. The hedges clipped like they did at Kew. Stephanie was at the front desk. She cheerily threw another of her fake, bacon-fat smiles at him, as if he was bladdered and she was waiting patiently for him to collapse on the floor. “Oh, hi Mr. Smith.”
“Hello, Stephanie, wonderful to see you, indeed. Have you seen Frank? I need to have a bit of a chin wag with him.”
“That nice,” she said. The last time Mr. Smith had seen Frank, it was during the courtside melee in which Frank had showed off latent rugby skills and tackled him. “I haven’t seen him this morning, but you know, he sometimes gets in a bit late.”
John looked into court four. Empty. He got the ladder from the back storeroom and hoisted it up near the front wall. He examined the chains where the heater had been. They had been cut, as he suspected. He was carrying the ladder down the hallway when two players ran into him. “Oh, it’s you, John. Great to see you. There’s a body behind the bar.”
John dashed into the bar. In the corner, slumped against the icebox, with blood pooling on the floor, was a dead man. John turned him over with his toe. It was Frank.
JAMES ZUG is the author of six books including Squash: A History of the Game (Scribner, 2003) and Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear (Penguin, 2010).
Next Up: Chapter 17 from John Branston