The Club From Hell
Chapter TWENTY-ONE by Alan Thatcher
The showcourt was packed for the unscheduled showdown in the first round of the Philadelphia Open as Jess Vale prepared to face the number two seed, Francoise Dutronc.
Normally the house-full signs went up towards the end of the week for the quarter-finals, the semis and the final.
Unknown to the grateful promoters and the Davenport Club, at least a quarter of the audience were police officers in various shades of plain-clothed disguise.
The intriguing story of a supposedly-kidnapped English teenaged girl, playing in this mysterious sport called squash, plus the attendant activities of Eastern European gangsters, drug cartels, money-laundering high-rollers and the interest of the British secret service, had certainly raised a few eyebrows among the Philadelphia Police Department at their Race Street HQ.
Their limited insight into European crime was nothing compared to their lack of knowledge about squash. The usual jokes were batted around until someone had the brains to turn to Google and discover that this whole new sporting universe existed.
“It’s like racquetball,” came the call. “But it’s, like, the British version, with a few Arabs and French guys.”
“But we’re looking at a women’s tournament,” said the Chief. “And it’s right here in town. At the Davenport Club.”
Further searches produced links to mainly British websites which carried reports and pictures of the tournament. It was clearly a big deal in squash, but hardly caused a ripple among the citizens and law-enforcement officers of its host city.
When the head-scratching was over, the Philly cops thought they ought to pass the information up the line to Washington. But before a call could be made, a team of FBI officers had made the 140-mile drive from Washington to support their colleagues in Arch Street, who were just a few blocks away and were already up to speed on the whole operation thanks to intelligence sources in the USA and England.
Many of the smarter cops quickly got up to speed on this new sport and headed for the Davenport Club with a hastily-acquired selection of tracksuits and racquet bags.
The bags did not contain racquets.
When the flight touched down in Philly, Steve Dwyer and Jill Smith were quickly ushered through side doors by their escorting officers.
Travelling in separate cars, officers continued to be highly suspicious of Dwyer but were becoming far more sympathetic to his companion.
This relentless turmoil of fear and a treadmill of emotions left Jill Smith on the brink of a mental breakdown. Much as she loved Steve, she was in way too deep in so many areas. But the hope of seeing her daughter again helped her to stay sane.
When that moment came, she burst into tears.
As the police cars arrived at the Davenport Club, a female officer, who had met them at the airport and accompanied them on the journey downtown, produced an envelope of photographs.
“Is this your daughter?”
Jill collapsed in raging, uncontrollable sobs.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
The officer touched Jill’s arm. “We think we know who the kidnappers are, but we need to know if you know them too.”
She produced a file of images but Jill shook her head as each new photograph was passed in front of her.
“We were supposed to meet them in Dubai but they didn’t show up.”
She wiped her tears and pleaded with the officer. “Can I see her now?”
“Not long now. As you know she is playing in this tournament but has been accompanied by some individuals who are of interest to us for non-sporting reasons.
“You say you don’t know them and we believe you. But we can’t allow any unexpected incident to jeopardise today’s operation so we will ask you to be a little more patient, Mrs Smith.
“We promise you that you will be reunited with Jessica before the end of the evening.”
Jill could hardly believe those words.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The train ride from Boston to Philadelphia took just over six hours. As Sam Smith and his friend Nestor emerged from the cavernous 30th Street Station and looked out across the Schuylkill River, they hailed a cab to the Davenport Club.
Fleetingly, Sam looked around the grand, art deco arrivals hall and thought it would provide a venue to rival the Tournament of Champions held every year at Grand Central Terminal in New York.
But his mind quickly returned to the task in hand. Finding his sister. And dealing with whoever had taken her away.
Steve Dwyer didn’t enjoy his treatment at the hands of the police officers. He also failed to enjoy travelling economy. And he certainly wasn’t enjoying the barrage of questions he was facing from a team of FBI officers in Philadelphia.
His skills at moving money around the globe seemed to fascinate the officers.
They had also found a sudden interest in the game of squash, and the luxury club Steve was building in London.
One officer asked for a list of Steve’s main business associates. And another wondered how many flights he had made to various parts of Europe in the past two years.
Similar questions were being asked of Nick Gaultier in a nearby interview room.
Jessica Smith was quickly into her stride on the Davenport Club’s showcourt.
Sam was desperate to rush over and hug his sister. But he didn’t want to upset her concentration or risk any kind of drama that might damage his plans. He didn’t quite know what those plans were just yet.
Sensibly, he pulled the top of his hoodie over his head and looked around the club to see if he could identify her travelling companions. Several other pairs of eyes were doing exactly the same thing.
The watching police officers were immediately impressed by the athleticism of the two squash players engaged in a gladiatorial battle on the glass court.
They admired the power of the shots, the extraordinary reflexes that enabled them to retrieve seemingly hopeless situations, and the rallies that grew into a length and intensity rarely seen in top-level tennis.
Bianca also admired the play, seated close to the referee with James Matthew and Angus Murray.
Francoise Dutronc was stunned by the fitness and accuracy of this unknown opponent who had won through from qualifying.
Qualifiers never play like this, she thought.
After failing to reach three perfectly placed drives that had landed in the back left corner, she altered her tactics. As the players worked the ball up and down the backhand sidewall, Dutronc changed her footwork pattern so that she deliberately blocked her opponent from reaching the ball.
The referee failed to spot the first incident, and Jessica was denied a let. When the pattern became obvious, she elected to use the video review appeal system to challenge the referee’s decision.
The rules of squash state that once you have played a shot, you must allow your opponent direct access to the ball. But many players allow subtle variations of footwork and body position to alter the rhythm and the flow of this crucial element of the game.
Most fair-minded players step backwards from a good-length ball to allow just enough room for their opponents to move into the corners, and then skip and shuffle up the middle of the court to get in front of the other player and gain control of the T position.
But not Miss Dutronc. Having struck her backhand drive she tried to move directly back to the T and deny Jessica a clear path to the ball.
It was the first time Jessica had used the video review system. The crowd enjoyed the drama of watching the incident unfold on the screens dotted around the venue and Sam, and most knowledgeable spectators, could instantly see what the French player was up to.
Sam whispered. “Cheating bitch.”
His pal nodded in agreement.
When the decision “Yes Let” was displayed on the screens, the crowd roared in delight. The replays had shown the French player blocking. And the crowd began cheering the underdog. Even the cops joined in, trying to blend in to the surroundings.
A group of men, huddled on the bleachers near to Jessica’s seat, reacted anxiously to the sudden increase in noise. Two of them instinctively reached for their guns. This action was promptly noted by most of the officers in the crowd, plus the extra camera filming alongside the squash TV crew.
Jill Smith waited outside the squash club, sipping a coffee in a cardboard cup in the back seat of the unmarked police car.
“Your girl is winning,” said the kindly officer. “We just need to deal with these people who we think have been holding her against her will, and then you can see her.”
Jill smiled. “I’m amazed she can concentrate, with all this stuff going on. I certainly couldn’t.”
She asked about Steve, and was told that he was being also being brought to the club.
Two conference rooms at the club had been taken over by the FBI, in preparation for the forthcoming events.
The crowd sensed that Jessica Smith was on the verge of a sensational victory.
Between games, she sat in her corner with a young couple who poured water, dried her racket grips and gave her fresh towels to wipe her face and hands.
Anatolie Grigoriev was in his hotel suite, waiting for a meeting with a business delegation from Europe.
Text messages from his aides kept him informed of developments at the squash tournament. Then he received another message, from Nick Gaultier, changing the venue of their meeting.
He told Grigoriev that the hotel was being watched and that it would be safer to meet at the squash club. He had commandeered the conference room and persuaded the Russian that no one would be monitoring the members and squash fans coming and going at the Davenport Club.
Back on court, Jessica won the first and second games and the crowd were behind her all the way.
Upstairs in the conference room, Nick Gaultier and Steve Dwyer waited to greet their Russian guest, who arrived with two bodyguards, in addition to the group at courtside.
Always suspicious, Grigoriev stared menacingly at the two men seated on the opposite side of the table.
Dwyer began the conversation.
“I hope that we are all more than satisfied with the anticipated growth of our business partnership. Financing property development and managing wealth are my specialities, and they are businesses where we can always appear to operate on the right side of the law.
“Being a generous benefactor in areas such as sport helps to develop a popular public image, and that is always a valuable asset. But some of your activities, Anatolie, give rise to concern. If people found out that we were involved with partners who, let me say, offended public morals, then it could tarnish that image.
“The arms trade is one thing. One could merely be operating in a free market buying and selling commodities. But drugs is something else altogether. We understand it must be a lucrative operation but we don’t want to risk our reputation by doing business with people whose activities might bring unwanted attention to ourselves.”
He had read and rehearsed the script, and delivered it perfectly.
Grigoriev, as anticipated, roared like a bear. “Keep your fucking nose out of our business.”
Gaultier and Dwyer both rocked back in their chairs as Grigoriev’s assistants got to their feet.
On the court, Jessica was 5-2 up in the third game when her desperate opponent decided that her physical tactics were not extreme enough.
After brushing past each other in mid-court, Jessica tumbled to the floor as Dutronc’s racket butt dug into her rib cage. In the next rally, as Jessica tried to move forward to the front of the court, she tripped over her opponent’s deliberately outstretched leg.
Then, despite a warning from the referee, the French player’s frustration boiled over as she unwound a huge backhand swing and the racket followed a horizontal course and smashed into the English girl’s face.
With blood pouring from a split lip, Jessica got to her feet and left the court. She was quickly pursued by the young Russian couple and the group of spectators whose behaviour had been monitored by the watching police officers.
The officers had hoped to contain their operation to the environs of the glass court.
As Jessica disappeared through the doorway to the corridor heading to the dressing rooms, her brother raced down the stairs to help her. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but before he could get anywhere near her the team of undercover officers sprung into action.
Jill panicked and screamed as the call came through to the cars waiting outside.
She dropped her empty coffee cup and begged to be allowed into the club to be with her daughter but the doors had been locked.
Two groups of officers who had been stationed in the locker rooms, supposedly changing before a session in the gym, dipped into their racket bags to grab their weapons.
Three female officers surrounded Jessica and escorted her into the ladies changing room as their colleagues jumped in behind to form a buffer between her and her Eastern European entourage.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The Russians were taken by surprise. They grabbed their weapons but they were soon outnumbered as more officers poured in from the bleachers.
The first Russian to bring a weapon out into the open was shot dead before he could pull the trigger. Two others tried to flee down the corridor but were jumped on as seemingly innocent bystanders in gym gear wrestled them to the floor. The others, looking at the dead body on the floor, leaking blood into the carefully woven Davenport Club carpet, gave themselves up.
Upstairs, Grigoriev and his goons heard the shot fired and headed towards the exit. Dwyer and Gaultier each had an arm twisted behind his back and were being used as a human shield by the Russian’s henchmen.
The police were waiting.
“Drop your weapons.”
Armed officers in riot gear were waiting outside the boardroom. The meeting had been recorded and the FBI had enough evidence from Dwyer’s script, and the response from the big, burly Russan, to nail the man they were hunting.
Several shots rang out. The first two were fired by Grigoriev’s men. One police officer was wounded in the shoulder. In the mayhem that followed, Gaultier tripped as one of the goons manhandled him away from the door and a bullet struck him in the neck. Blood spurted across the face of the man using him as a shield. The next bullet entered the goon’s eye socket. He collapsed on top of Gaultier and his absence from the front rank exposed Grigoriev to the police marksmen.
Grigoriev also had a gun.
“Drop your weapon.”
The police wanted to take him alive to face the courts but Grigoriev ignored their warning and opened fire.
Instead of aiming at the police he pointed the gun at Steve Dwyer and fired.
Within a split second, one marksman sent a bullet into Grigoriev’s hand, forcing him to relinquish his weapon, and another shot him in the thigh.
He and Dwyer tumbled to the floor.
Grigoriev and his group were rounded up and herded into the wagons that rolled up outside the club to capture their prey.
With the dressing room secured, and a medic having mopped the blood from Jessica’s face, the police officers finally allowed her to head back to the court.
The poor referee was powerless to control the pandemonium that erupted at courtside but had an important decision to announce to the crowd.
“Conduct penalty against Dutronc for dangerous play. Match awarded to Smith.”
Jessica was still escorted by a group of female police officers, but they broke ranks as a call came through from the car park.
Jill rushed through the gap and she and Jessica fell into each other’s arms.
Sam, who had almost got into a fight with a gorilla of a police officer, finally persuaded him that he was, indeed, Jessica’s brother.
He, too, was allowed through.
Overwhelmed, Jill embraced her two children.
All three could hardly speak through the tears.
Jessica had a lot of explaining to do but that could wait.
“We’ve got all week to listen,” said Jill. “You’ve got a tournament to win.”
“I don’t care about that,” said Jessica. “I just want to come home.”
On the spot, Sam announced that he was quitting the Aullt Academy and coming home, too.
Jill had put Steve Dwyer out of her mind. But her friendly police officer pulled her to one side as Sam and Jess hugged and cried and spoke halting sentences all at the same time.
“Mr Dwyer is in the hospital,” she said. “He was shot during an incident upstairs and may be in the hospital for some time. A Mr Gaultier was also shot. They will be protected during their stay in the hospital and will almost certainly be expected to stay here in Philadelphia to assist with federal investigations.
“You and your family are free to go.”
At that moment Jill’s mobile rang.
Bianca had kept John up to speed with developments. Sober, he was on the line to his wife.
It was a difficult conversation. Both were crying into the phone.
“Jessica’s safe. And Sam’s here as well.” Jill managed to blurt out those two short statements before crying again.
“I’ll be waiting at the airport as soon as you get back,” said John. “I want the family to give it another try.”
Jill, falteringly, agreed.
“Just one condition,” said John. “We must get rid of that bloody squash club.”
Jill stared at the phone, and looked across at her two smiling children.
“Yes. That game’s finished.”