The Club from Hell
Chapter 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 draw.
“Where is this Miss Vale going to end up in the first round?” Eliza whispered.
“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 next up.”
“I think I know,” Jo-Anne said. “In the first round, I think she’ll be playing Françoise.”
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 Françoise.”
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 laughed.
“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 club?”
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 everyone.”
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 Afghanistan.”
“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 softly channel.”
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.
About the Author
AUBREY WADDY is an English writer and squash player, just past 65 and what-the-heck-happens-next! Aubrey is a consultant in the medical device industry, and apart from this and writing, he spends his time titrating squash against the diminishing capacity of his bad knee.
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”. In June 2012 he published his second novel, “Just Desserts”, which Nostradamus predicted would be the worst literary disaster of the 21st century. 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 of London.