Chapter SEVENTEEN

The Club from Hell

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Chapter SEVENTEEN by John Branston

 

Mind the gap.

Which sounded to Bianca like “Moind the gap.” Anyway, she loved it, the oh-so-British warning to boarding and exiting passengers that sounded every time a train approached a station with an air-sucking roar in the London tube. It was her new catch phrase. She even bought a “Mind the Gap” t-shirt at a souvenir store near the Tower of London.

Her cheap international cellphone rang, and she heard the voice of John Smith.

“Where are you? I’ve been trying to reach you all day.”

“I’m just coming out of the tube station at Oxford Circus,” Bianca said. “Wait a second while I get some space so I can hear you better.”

She fumbled with the unfamiliar phone. The usual horde of tourists and locals was making its way along Oxford Street while the rain had let up. If there was a global recession, they hadn’t gotten the news. A man the size of a gorilla wearing a top coat and sunglasses bumped into Bianca, and muttered an apology. She instinctively clutched her bag tighter, but his mitts were way too big for a career as a pickpocket. He reminded her of the face on the billboard she had just seen coming out of the tube for the new movie “The Sweeney” with a tough guy actor named Winston or something.

“No time to chat, but listen carefully and I’ll fill you in as soon as I can,” said John. “And do you know anything about firearms?”

“Draw, point, pull the thingee, make it go bang.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” and his voice broke up amid the surrounding din.

“But I can take care of myself,” Bianca quickly assured him.

“I’m sure you can, but we’re not talking about drunken college boys trying to get into your pants. We’re dealing with some dangerous people here. I decided to stop by the Vale Squash Club. A fellow named Frank who worked as a handy man turned up dead today.”

“Christ, that club again? What happened?”

“Either he strangled himself or someone did it for him. He had a broken neck and spit up some blood. Looks like he put up a fight.”

“Who wants to whack a handy man? Did he forget to clean the toilets?”

“Cute but inappropriate. I’m not sure but he must have done something or known something that made him more than the pain in the ass I remember. The police are talking to employees and were trying to reach Jill and Steve Dwyer. Get over here as soon as you can.”

Bianca sat down to try to sort it out. Which wasn’t easy. It seemed like everyone was a detective and flying off to New York, London, Dubai, India, or who knows where. Vale, goddamned Vale, had been the scene of a death by falling appliance, a possible kidnapping, an assault by a madman with a squash racquet who happened to be her traveling companion, a change of ownership, and now a murder in less time than it takes most health clubs to switch out the towels.

She needed a compass, a guide, someone with some perspective. She called Angus Murray, who had hired her in the first place.

“About time,” he said. “Thought you’d gone rogue.”

“I know,” said Bianca. “But hear me out, okay?”

She told him about her little jaunt to India, the awkward reunion with Jill and Steve, and the call she had just taken from John.

“They’re wasting their time,” she said breathlessly. “They’ve got more money than sense. Jessica’s not in Dubai or India. She’s somewhere in the states with a guy named Aman. I’ve been talking to Tatiana Grigorieva and getting her to open up. That’s what I do, remember? She’s a piece of, uh, work herself, but I think she can help us find Jessica.”

“Maybe,” said Angus, “but I’m getting mixed signals lately from the suddenly not-so-happy couple that is paying our bills. Not so sure they’re on the same page, as you say. What I want you to do now is back off for a while and let me earn the retainer. Get back to the flat, and have John call me if he will. I assume he is with you.”

“Not exactly, at least not at the moment, but I can see him soon enough. Unfortunately he’s drinking again and not always on his game, but he’s smart enough when he’s sober. He said he was going to meet someone named Kristen about the sale of the club. I think it figures into Jessica’s disappearance somehow.”

“John’s a dupe, and Jill may be too,” Angus snapped. “They don’t know as much as they think they know, and frankly, neither do you, although you seem to be handing out business cards on three continents. I hired you to poke around a New England prep school and chase a couple of leads in New York for me, not to be the next girl with the dragon tattoo.”

The condescending remarks stung, but Bianca let it go. Angus was a pro. Being a smart ass and know-it-all had nearly gotten her kicked out of college before she dropped out on her own. Keeping her mouth shut and using her head more had given her a new life. She was a 20-year-old girl working at a weekly newspaper who suddenly found herself in London with a man she barely knew and working for a British investigator on a missing persons case. She could handle the likes of Tatiana well enough, but Angus didn’t always keep her up to speed and John was erratic on his best days. Too much on her plate. Her instincts told her to chill.

Mind the gap.

The rain had started in earnest, and she decided to take the tube instead of walking or catching a cab. She slipped her pass into the turnstile, rode the escalator down to the corridor where a guy was blowing a saxophone in a passable attempt at “Stormy Weather.”  She tossed a few coins into his open case, got a nod in return, and followed the crowd to Platform Two.

The display flashed “train approaching.” The disembodied voice announced Mind the gap.

She looked toward the black tunnel anticipating the sound that would soon be a roar. She took her place just behind the yellow caution line, and noticed the guy who had bumped into her a few minutes ago. Ray Winstone, that was who he looked like. Yes, only uglier, more Russian that British. He was looking at her now and coming right toward her, no mistake about it, and he did not look like he was going to introduce himself.

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About the Author

JOHN BRANSTON began playing squash just before turning 50 after many years of tennis and racquetball. He plays three or four times a week and hopes to play all of his fellow authors on their home courts.

Originally from Michigan, he and his wife Jenny live in Memphis, where he is columnist for Memphis magazine and the Memphis Flyer, a freelance reporter for national news media, and author of the book Rowdy Memphis.

He blogs about racquet sports (A Fan’s Notes) at memphisflyer.com.

Next Up: Chapter 18 from The Squashist

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