Ignoring the complaint from the Satnav John Smith parked the car several streets from his destination and got out. As he locked up and walked along the quiet roads he took in the area; nice houses, locked gates, quality cars parked on driveways with tidy gardens. Using the mental map he had stored in his brain he walked in a loop, eventually entering a street where the houses were even bigger, the cars were extremely expensive and the tightly locked gates were electric. He wanted number eight, which was at the other end, he looked around, taking in the affluent surroundings and set off.
At number eight, Richard Cromwell was uneasy. Sitting behind the huge mahogany desk in the study that he used as his office, the tension was getting the better of him. Relaxing comfortably in this room was how he normally spent his time, but today was different. The study was a large room, carefully furnished and decorated and spotlessly clean. It was immaculate. His desk, which was as ever totally clear other than a telephone on the right hand side, was at the far end of the room in front of a set of patio doors which opened out onto a wide terrace leading to a pristine garden. Sitting on a low sofa to his right were his two sons Charles and James, and then in a chair by the door was Bruno his ‘assistant’ who looked passively at nothing. Richard checked his watch; it was time. He glanced at the door and then at Charles his eldest who shrugged and pointedly shook his head. Richard leaned forward with his elbows on the desk and rubbed his face with his hands. He looked over at Bruno who had a video monitor on a table next to him. He studied it and shook his head.
‘We have no idea who this guy is,’ Charles told him, not for the first time, he had been saying it for the last few days.
‘I know, but the recommendation is enough,’ Richard replied without looking at his son.
‘From Ross? You know what I think.’
‘I’ve known Louis Ross for many years Charles. Longer than you’ve been alive even. And yes, I know what he is but in this particular matter I trust him.’
Charles tutted and sat back. ‘Well, where is he then? If this chap is so good. So reliable.’
Richard didn’t reply. He despised himself for it but he knew there was something in what Charles was saying. Louis Ross was a money launderer, and ruthless with it. There had been a time when they could have been described as friends but Ross had become such a major player that now they only talked when necessary. Ross had no qualms about taking any action to get what he wanted, and had a long list of enemies. But despite his best efforts to keep everything private word had got out about Richard’s problem and Ross had called, and offered advice, which had been accepted. He knew someone who could help. Richard was becoming desperate, and he wasn’t used to feeling this way.
Charles was now humming tunelessly. Richard looked at him sharply and he stopped, then sighed loudly.
‘Dad, you know we found nothing on this John Smith. Nothing at all. No record of him anywhere. I mean even the name is … ’, James started speaking earnestly.
The doorbell rang.
John let go of the button and stepped back from the ridiculously shiny gloss black door. He had spotted the camera discretely positioned above him, but deliberately did not look at it. He had made his way up the street via the extensive green spaces between the houses and then emerged right at the gates which were already standing open and then he had walked coolly along the gravel drive past a Bentley and a Lamborghini and up the steps taking in the glorious surroundings. It was autumn, but despite the cool, fresh October air all he could smell was money.
The door opened and a smartly dressed young Chinese woman answered. As he began to give his name she told him he was expected and ushered him into a spotless wide hallway with obligatory black and white floor tiles. He followed her as she moved to a door toward the rear of the house and knocked timidly. She stood back a respectful distance. The door was opened immediately by a big bear of a man who dismissed the woman and gestured him inside in one motion.
John stopped and stood in the doorway eyeing the man who stood in front of him. Neither wore any expression. John was unable to see into the room because of the open door, so he waited, relaxed, his eyes never leaving the other man. Eventually he heard a quiet instruction from within the room and the big man smiled slightly and indicated to John to raise his arms. He did so and was searched thoroughly before being motioned inside. He heard the door close quietly behind him.
Inside the room was dominated by a large desk at the other end, discrete bookshelves with a few books on one side and a sofa on the other. The room was clean and orderly, like a showroom. On the sofa sat two men in their late twenties, both wearing trousers and open neck shirts, behind the desk a man in his sixties sat, smartly dressed in shirt and tie. All three men watched John closely as he crossed the room to the desk.
‘Mr Cromwell?’ he asked.
Richard stood up smiling, and reached across to shake hands.
‘Yes, thank you so much for coming Mr Smith. Please, these are my sons, Charles and James.’
The three men all shook hands.
‘Please Mr Smith, take a seat,’ suggested Richard, gesturing to a leather armchair on the other side of the desk. John sat down and leant back.
‘Bruno can you arrange some tea and coffee please,’ Richard asked quietly dropping back into his chair.
In the reflection of the glass doors behind the desk John saw the big man stand up and leave the room, returning a few seconds later and resuming his seat.
‘So Mr Smith, again thank you for coming to see me. I’m not sure if or how the situation was explained to you by Louis, or if you fully understand what it is that we would like you to do.’
‘No, Louis didn’t tell me anything, just that I could be of service to you,’ John lied. In fact, Louis Ross had quite gleefully told John in detail the problem that Richard had, crowing that nothing like this would ever happen to him, but John knew Ross all too well and wanted to get the real facts before he made any decision, it had sounded like a relatively straightforward job but in his experience this was rarely the whole story.
‘I see, well I believe that is for the best. The situation isn’t particularly complicated, but I want it dealt with and I would like it if it could be completed the way I would prefer.’
John nodded. He knew very little about Richard Cromwell, but he came over impressively. Well spoken, he had a quiet, assured manner and was impeccably dressed, cufflinks and tie pin gleaming, his hair freshly cut.
There was a tap on the door, and in the reflection John watched Bruno open it and take a tray and then silently cross the room, placing it carefully on the desk before retreating. James stood and laid out the cups then looked enquiringly at John.
‘Coffee please,’ John replied.
James dealt with everyone around the desk and sat down. Richard got up and opened the door to the garden behind him, filling the room with fresh air. He sat down again and after a glance at his sons began speaking.
‘Mr Smith, I …’
‘Fine, well John, firstly can I be assured of your absolute discretion? You do come highly recommended and your er … shall we say prudence is beyond question. But this is a very sensitive matter and could easily lead to serious implications. It is important that I … ah … retain a certain status. I know how this must sound given the circumstances, and I apologise. It is nonsensical to a certain extent, and I really am very sorry for bringing it up, but my son … well.’
He glanced at Charles who nodded slowly.
John waved a hand. ‘Mr Cromwell, I work alone. Whatever is said to me stays with me. I don’t have anyone to tell anyway, even if I wanted to.’
Richard studied John carefully. He was younger than he had expected, probably just pushing forty. And he was smaller; he had imagined someone big, well-built to be in this line of work. John Smith was just a bit taller than average, maybe six feet, and wiry with cold blue eyes and close cropped hair. But there was something about him, something hard, something better avoided, reinforced by a strong South London accent. A strong, capable man. He made his choice.
‘Right, well I’m going to start at the beginning. So my first question is, do you have any idea what line of business I am in?’
‘As I understand it, diamonds,’ John replied, his interest growing.
‘Diamonds yes, in fact all precious stones. I am going to sound crass now but I am a wealthy man, in fact my whole family is. My sons will take over soon, Charles is already Managing Director. But the rather unfortunate fact is we actually have two companies in reality, company one is what I am famous for, originally started by my father and the most reputable and highly regarded of its kind in the world. Company two is, well, it’s not so legitimate.’
John said nothing. Richard was aware of the unease in the room, his two sons had not wanted this to become public and were not happy with the situation. There had been a lot of anger; Charles had argued vociferously against outside involvement right from the start. But Richard was steadfast. Action was needed.
‘You are here because we have a serious problem caused by company two. Very serious, and it is a problem we have discovered we do not have the skills, the basic knowledge, in fact the people, to resolve. Now the real truth is company two exists because an unexpected opportunity came to light a few years ago and I took it. Possibly boredom, the want to do something different, I don’t know but I enjoyed the thrill of it and it made a lot of money. Essentially, it is the business of company one without any record, which suits certain parties and I am able to perform. But I am going to be honest with you, the absolute fact is I don’t need this business or certainly the grief it has recently brought us so it is being wound up. But as much as I would like to I can’t just walk away, at least, not yet. I need something personal resolved urgently, and I am hoping very much that you are the man to do it.’
‘It all started nearly ten years ago. Look, diamonds suit a lot of various enterprises rather than money. People can have a lot of diamonds or precious stones which draw a lot less attention than sudden large influxes of cash, and are ideal forms of payment. If you are conscientious any precious stones can be very freely moved around. I was approached with a proposition which I accepted and I was paid very well. The people who I dealt with are extremely powerful and very rich. They were very happy with my work. And I continued to do it. So the truth is over those years I have often supplied all sorts of stones to people I later buy them back off with company one. Everyone was making money and nobody ever complained. Anyway, it grew and grew and I started doing business with a gentleman in Las Vegas, and it suited both of us very well. We essentially became friends. And then two years ago his son got involved, and everything changed.’
‘I don’t have all the details, it came out of the blue but suddenly Francesco retired and his son Pablo took over, this all happened without any warning. I had been working closely with Francesco since the beginning. Pablo contacted me to give me the news and initially it seemed that everything would continue. He assured me that all he wanted was continuation. My previous managing director Thomas was dealing with everything and it appeared to me that it was business as usual.’
John looked at Richard and then at his sons. ‘Right. And where is Thomas?’
‘First part of the problem. He is in Las Vegas.’
‘In fact he is in Las Vegas with around a million pounds of my money.’
‘Wow! What’s the second part of the problem?’
‘That’s the part I care most about. I’m not bothered about the money. I have enough. More than enough. But Thomas has gone to Las Vegas and taken my daughter with him.’
‘Against her will you mean?’
‘Thomas is fifty-six. Abby will be twenty-five next year, and has the pick of any man. I admit I spoiled her, I kept her out of the family business really, she is not really suited to any serious work, and I do not mean that to sound patronising, but I would cherry pick little jobs for her to do, things that I knew she would enjoy, nothing arduous. I sent her on business trips for company one because she wanted to be a part of it, but she knew nothing about company two. Nothing at all. I kept that totally separate. Thomas must have had some kind of hold on her. It all seems ridiculous, unbelievable. As far as I knew they had little to do with each other. I don’t understand it; he just disappeared and took her with him.’
‘And you can’t speak to her, or Thomas? What about Pablo? Can he help? What does he have to say about all this?’
‘Pablo? Nothing other than to laugh and make a lot of threats. I realised way too late that clearly he has put this together with Thomas, I can’t believe I was so blind. It didn’t happen overnight. I have been unable to reach Abby by phone or any means for over three weeks, and Thomas is equally invisible.’
‘OK, what about credit cards? Cashpoint?’
‘Her card was used a great deal initially, but I put on a stop on it. The purchases clearly weren’t for her. She hasn’t taken any cash out, for a long time in fact, and never in Las Vegas, but I stopped that card too anyway, just in case. I need her to call me, I just want to speak to her, to know that she’s OK.’
John scratched his head. ‘Look Mr Cromwell, I hate to ask this, I’m sure you have considered it but are you sure she is still alive? Could she have been taken as security?’
‘Security? John we are not that kind of operation. We offer no threat, and this is why we have asked for you to come and see us. Please understand that we perform a task on behalf of others, we are a third party, behind the scenes. I did get some emails from her, and when she was first there some phone calls. All perfectly normal, although admittedly I was upset with her for going there as I had specifically asked her not to. Then I heard nothing from her for nearly a week so I started calling her. Eventually she answered, and sounded very subdued; she asked me to leave her be, she didn’t want to talk. But this were some time ago now, nothing for weeks. I know her, she is my little girl. There is no way that she would not contact me willingly. And then, to rub salt in the wound, Pablo emailed me these.’
Richard opened a drawer in his desk and took out two photographs. One was of a serious-looking middle-aged man and the other a beautiful blonde woman. The man was holding a whisky glass in one hand and dollars in the other, the woman was leaning against a roulette table and smiling. The shots were taken in a casino. He handed the pictures over to John who studied them.
‘Thomas, and Abby. Both these pictures were taken in the last two weeks.’
‘What’s Abby like? Is it possible she just fancied a change of scenery?’
Richard looked at his sons.
‘Abby is well, Abby. She likes life. She can be a bit … excitable shall we say. Like I told you I admit to spoiling her, and yes I suppose I have spoiled them all but she does have everything she ever wanted. She takes the expensive holidays, has the new cars and all that. But this isn’t like her. She is daddy’s little girl John. It may sound trite, but it is true. She likes to travel, but she always wants to come home.’
John looked closely at the pictures. Abby was certainly a looker but Thomas could have been anyone. He could feel tension in the two men on the sofa so he opted to ask a question to them, looking directly at James.
‘So can you shed any light on this?’
James went to speak but Charles interrupted him.
‘My father made the call to bring you in, I didn’t agree with it. But you’re here now, and you know more than I would have wanted you to, so you may as well know everything. My dad hired Thomas to run things. Company two as he calls it. For years everything is fine. Dad knew Thomas from the old days of the business, and let him run it his way. Vegas is good for us, well it was anyway. for a while at least. Thomas spent a lot of time there, he seemed to be doing a great job, cultivating it. Then, as you’ve heard, in comes Pablo, literally out the blue. Francesco has disappeared completely. Thomas goes over to Las Vegas to make sure there are no problems and the rest is history. Pablo starts buying more than ever, and it takes time but we don’t see any of the cash which Thomas tells us he is dealing with but really hides everything very well. Meantime he’s all over Abby making promises and once there are enough zeros he contacts Abby and off she goes to be with him.’
John nodded and looked at James.
‘What about you?’
‘Abby never said anything to me, nothing about Thomas, nothing about Vegas, nothing about any of it. And we are really close. She went there a couple of times, with her friends, holidays, whatever, just a couple of days. But never for business. Never. Dad and I are really worried about her.’ He looked quickly at Charles. ‘Well, we all are. This doesn’t make any sense, we just want her back.’
‘So she said nothing to any of you at all about leaving?’
Again, Charles looked at his father.
‘No,’ he confirmed.
‘That’s not strictly true,’ Richard said slowly. ‘She wanted to go back to Vegas, she had been talking about it for some time, she wanted another girl’s holiday there and wanted to explore the place properly. She said she liked it there. So she said anyway. But I was already having these issues with Pablo, so I asked her not to go. She wasn’t happy about it but didn’t raise the subject again. Not to me anyway.’
He looked over at Charles, who shrugged. James looked more uncomfortable, it was obvious his distress was genuine, as was Richard’s.
‘Have you ever been to Vegas John?’ asked Charles with a smile.
‘Travelled much?’ James wanted to know.
‘Travelled? Yes, I have travelled a lot. But never to Vegas.’
‘So what, are you ex-military, or something?’ Charles demanded challengingly.
John ignored the question and turned back to Richard.
‘Tell me, what exactly is it you want me to do?’
‘We have no idea where she is, other than we understand she is in Las Vegas. The email and photos from Pablo confirmed it, at least recently anyway. But I have to admit, we are not even totally sure about this. But in my heart, I believe she is still alive. I know it. So please, find her, and bring her home.’
‘Ok. And the money?’
‘I’m not interested in it particularly, but I don’t see why Pablo should have it I suppose. So if you can claim it then great, if not then so what. Abby is all that’s important. Bring her back.’
‘I get it. What about Thomas?’
‘He can rot there. He’s dead to me. John, can you get this done?’
John stood up and stretched gently. ‘I can’t see any reason why not. I’ll keep these photos, if that’s OK with you.’
‘By all means.’
‘What is Pablo’s full name, do you have his address, any other details?’
‘It’s Pablo Escola, and no, we don’t know his address,’ Charles told him abruptly.
‘It’s likely that this Pablo is involved, you do understand that?’ John spoke gently.
Richard sighed and looked even more crestfallen.
‘Yes, that is what I believe. Charles says not, but it’s all I can see.’
John looked at Charles quizzically, but he looked away. Something not right there.
‘I’ll do what I can Richard.’
‘How long do you think it will take?’
‘Give me say one week, maybe ten days. Should be enough. I’ll let you know when I’m leaving.’
‘When can you start?’
‘As soon as I have booked a flight.’
‘We will sort that out,’ Charles told him standing up. ‘We’ll get you a suite at the Bellagio.’
John shook his head. ‘No, thanks you for the flight, but I’ll sort out somewhere to stay myself.’
‘You need to go online, register for the visa.’
‘It’s no problem, I was in New York last month.’
Richard stood up and walked round the desk. It was not yet afternoon but outside had grown very dark, and rain started to fall heavily. Richard grabbed John’s hand.
‘Thank you. We have never met before but I think we are in good hands.’
Out of the corner of his eye John saw Charles roll his eyes. He let it slide.
‘This is what I do, if she is alive I’ll find her. I will call and update you.’
‘That’s great, and thank you very much. Bruno?’
Bruno rose out of his chair and produced a thick envelope, which he passed to Richard who handed it over to John.
‘This is seventy five percent, up front. Once Abby is back I will give you the balance, plus a bonus if you do happen to recover any of the money.’
‘Good. Right, well let me know about the flight, you have my number.’
Richard nodded. As John turned to leave Charles stopped him looking at him incredulously.
‘Mr Smith, I hate to be the one to spoil the party but do you understand what you’re getting into?’
John looked at him carefully, ice cold eyes. Smug Charles was a person he could happily punch in the face.
‘Yes I think so.’
‘I don’t think you do. Pablo Escola is a name over in Vegas, a big man. He’s into everything, drugs, guns, girls, the whole lot. He fronts it with his hotel there. Look, my father has never met him but I did. I went out there in the beginning with Thomas. I’ve seen his operation first hand. He’s got a small army out there. I’m telling you this because if you don’t do this properly it will be over before it starts as soon as you get off the plane. Thomas works for Pablo now, and he is not going to throw his arms open in welcome.’
John looked out at the rain falling. He was going to get soaked getting back to his car.
‘Right Charles, I’ll bear it in mind. What’s his hotel called?’
‘What? It’s called the Acropolis. But avoiding it won’t help you.’
‘Who said anything about avoiding it?’
John made a show of shaking Charles and James’ hands and nodded to Bruno who opened the door and let him out. The Chinese lady appeared out of nowhere and led him to the front door. John looked up at the sky and walked briskly back to his car. As he expected, he got soaked.