“Come away from the window babe there’s no one out there.”
Joanne held her arm protectively across the top of her teddy, covering her cleavage as she stared through the window and into the back garden below. Her glance back to her boyfriend bristled with anxiety. He clearly didn’t feel it though, reaching unfazed for the bottle of rosè and pouring them both a refill before slipping back into the carnage of her bed sheets and patting his chest as an invitation.
“Come back to bed, come on, we should be making the most of having a free house not getting spooked by the slightest of sounds.”
“I know, it’s just, I thought I heard someone banging on the door before when we were…”
“It’ll just have been the headboard,” Ben reassured. “Listen…”
He rocked back and forth aggressively on the bed until the headboard began banging rhythmically against the wall behind it.
“See?” he said smiling nonchalantly at his sexual prowess. “Look, I’m not surprised you’re a bit freaked out what with all that shit Amy’s been going through but it’s over now. They’ve made all the arrests they need to. All the bad guys have been locked up. In fact, the only bad boy that needs your attention right now baby is down here under these sheets.”
Joanna raised her eyebrows knowingly before shaking her head. It masked the tinge of embarrassment that had slightly flushed her cheeks. It was true; she was being spooked far too easily since hearing of assassins chasing her two housemates, the harbouring of dead bodies and that horrible bacteria that had infected Amy’s lip. It just wasn’t how you expected to end your university years.
“Come back to bed babes.”
Joanna nodded and laughed away her insecurities. She turned away from the window and nuzzled back into the safety of her boyfriend’s warm skin, kissing his lips gently, only for the faint sound of rustling outside to stem the deluge of her kisses.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered. “I definitely didn’t imagine that.”
She jumped up and crept back over to the window, peering over the ledge and into the back garden below.
“Oh come on, J’anna; the only thing being assassinated tonight is our passion by you and your jitters,” Ben mumbled reaching for the remote control and flicking on the TV.
Joanne’s eyes scoured the shrubbery at the back of the garden for any sign of activity but nothing caught her attention.
“It’ll just have been a cat,” Ben continued flicking through the evening chat shows with distain.
“No, I can definitely hear something, like a shuffling. I just heard a grunt…Ben?”
Joanna slowly raised herself onto her bare feet to better scour the garden.
“Jesus,” she shouted as she staggered back.
From nowhere the face suddenly appeared level with hers at the window. The dark iris of his laser blue eyes locked onto hers, staring deep into her as he leaned over from the drain pipe, just inches away.
“Call the police, Ben, call the police now.”
“Best not to do that,” the man at the window advised, clinging onto the drain pipe but still able to raise the gun in his right hand. “Better to open window.”
The rat-a-tat-tat of the metal barrel against the glass was slight but still intimidating; freezing Joanna to the spot. The man immediately turned his attention to Ben who lay open mouthed in the bed with the pink duvet pulled up to his chest.
“Better open window, Ben, I have gun.”
As the intruder flicked the gun between the two, Ben jumped up and scrabbled around for his boxers caught up in the sheets at the bottom of the duvet, feeding each leg in turn into them before walking gingerly towards the window.
“Open window,” the man repeated, “then stand back.”
“He’s Russian,” Joanne whispered. “Shit, he’s one of them, one of the assassins that was chasing Amy.”
“Fuck,” Ben whispered back, covering his mouth so the assassin couldn’t hear. “Don’t you dare open that window,” he added. “I’ll count to three and then we leg it to the door, lock ourselves in the bathroom and call the police. Let him in and anything could happen.”
A vivid cine reel of permutation flashed through Joanne’s mind. She glanced at Ben and then at the assassin. Even through her fear she could see he was ruggedly, good looking; strong jaw line, short cropped hair, swept roughly to one side, strong blue eyes, but young looking, certainly younger than them.
“Hang on a minute, I know who you are,” she muttered as she subconsciously pointed a knowing finger at him. “You’re not an assassin, you’re the Russian, the one that helped Amy…Vitali, isn’t it? She described you perfectly.”
The man nodded, clearly concerned at being recognised but more agitated by his loosening grip on the drain pipe.
“I am assassin too but I not here to kill you… or this Ben, so open window now. Please.”
As she moved towards the window and began to open it, Ben interjected.
“I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you put your gun away, climb back down the drain pipe and come in through the more conventional method of the front door?”
“But I say already I am not here to hurt you,” Vitali reassured.
“Oh well that makes everything alright then, wave your gun in my face but as long as you tell your intentions, I’ll believe every word.”
“I am here to help Amy… Amy Walker. She is in big, big danger and it is my fault. So I must speak with her immediately. Here see, take gun.”
Vitali handed the weapon over to Joanne and then completed his climb through the opened window, stumbling through and falling awkwardly onto the carpet. He quickly regained his composure along with the control of his gun, to the dismay of the boyfriend, and then asked the question again.
“So where is she, Amy Walker? I must speak with her now.”
“Well, she’s not here,” Ben asserted.
“She’s in Italy,” Joanne added, more helpfully. “She’s due to meet her parents this weekend just outside Milan.”
Vitali cursed in Russian.
“In Monza. I know this already,” he affirmed, “but I hope she not gone already “You have address?”
“You have internet?”
Vitali reached into the backpack, strapped to his back and pulled a wad of notes, all fifties, about four inches thick from the side pocket.
“Because I must book flight to this Monza. Khasbulatov mention this place. I must go immediately. Please, I give you money if you book flight for me. She is in big danger, the biggest.”
“Why, what’s going on? What danger is she in? Shouldn’t we tell the police?”
“Maybe but maybe they have trouble listening or move like these snails. We must tell Amy, immediately. She will listen. Please, give me phone we must stop her going to this address in Monza.”
“But she’s meeting her parents there. She’s spent the last twenty odd years waiting to meet them, I don’t think…”
“If she wait twenty years she can wait another day, for me to get there. Please we must ring her now before it too late.”
“What do you mean before it’s too late?”
“Before Khasbulatov meet up with her,” Vitali replied offering a few of the notes to the girl. “Before he try to bury what Amy Walker dig up.”
“Female No. 2 dies last,” Yakubov instructed from the other end of the phone. “The young brunette has to suffer. She must witness the other two targets die. This is essential. Male Number One dies first, then Female Number One. Amy Walker must feel their pain before we kill her. You understand? She is Female No. 2; the last to die.”
He knew his irritation was clear in the huge sigh he took but even then he didn’t begin his reply. Instead he finished polishing the handgun and placed it into its designated slot cut into the internal sponge of the silver briefcase, purposefully keeping his one-time teacher waiting.
“Zhyogal, Zhyogal, Zhyogal,” he eventually said. “You repeat these instructions every day since you pass job my way. Please just trust your prodigy; an assassin’s trap is deeply sprung.”
He reached for the silencer laid out next to an array of cartridges, magazines and bullets on the hotel bed.
“If details are so important, why do you even pass this job over to me? It’s clearly important to you? Why don’t you carry out yourself?”
“Let’s just say, I have a more pressing, prior engagement, a more poltical matter to attend to.”
“So don’t take two conflicting jobs then.”
“When a man like Vyacheslav Khasbulatov hand picks you for a job, you don’t turn him down.”
“So why do you give me this Amy Walker?”
“Because I trust you, because you are greatest killer I ever train…”
“Good. So for this reason you only need to give me the instructions once,” he said with a snigger.
“Seriously Zhyogal, you’re starting to piss me off. It is five years since you taught me. I have nearly one hundred kills to my name.”
“Okay, I apologise but it is essential that this job goes smoothly.”
“The only thing you need to tell me is when the killing starts.”
“It starts soon after she arrives. So you are in Monza now?”
“Yes we left the Swiss mountains as soon as she touched down as you instructed. Everything is in place. She is sleeping in her hotel room.”
“Yes, I am watching her too.”
The assassin glanced through the gap in the curtains at the cityscape of Milan just ten miles or so away in the distance, knowing she was somewhere in the dancing lights between the Pirelli Tower and the twisting curves of the towering CityLife development. He wondered briefly what the girl could have done to upset the mighty Vyacheslav Khasbulatov but then cast the thought away as an irrelevance.
“So when she moves, we will move too,” he asserted. “Until then we will be waiting.”
He flicked the laptop into action again and watched as the image of the home opened up from the surveillance they’d rigged up. The moonlight bounced off the terracotta roof and the white walls of the property making it look like heaven was already lighting the pathway for those in the house.
“Good, good,” Yakubov continued. “She has people she has to meet and we must let this happen. They must talk first; embrace even, before we strike. This is the way it has to be…”
Shaking his head in despair at Yakubov’s intensity, he cut the call dead. He’d heard enough. Zhyogal Yakubov had been the most competent killer in the former Soviet Union for over two decades but demotion came to every man. Fitter, younger, better men took their place. He looked again at the blue dot pulsing next to the image on a satellite map of Milan. Satisfied that it remained stationary, he stood up and packed the bundles of rope neatly into the suitcase, placing the duct tape on top of them followed by the digital camera that would encapsulate her fate. Bored of the waiting, he dared Amy Walker to make her move.
The vibration of the mobile phone woke Carolyn from a deep sleep. The previous day walking around Milan’s tourist sights; Santa Maria delle Grazie and The Last Supper, Piazza del Duomo and its cathedral and of course row after row of shopping streets had taken its toll. As she woke, her thighs felt heavy and her feet were still sore from the excessive hours of walking around in heels.
She glanced over to the mobile phone, which Amy had left charging on silent, just as its aggressive vibrations stopped. Sitting up in her bed, she realised two things; the mobile had also woken Francesca whilst Amy was nowhere to be seen; missing again.
“Sleep well, sleeping beauty?” Francesca greeted; her Italian accent laced with the Mancunian that her University years had bestowed on her.
She removed the sleeping mask from her eyes to let the day light flood in.
“You were out as soon as we got back here last night,” she added.
“I slept better than Amy by the looks of it. Where is she?”
“She mentioned a boxercise class yesterday. I didn’t hear her leave though did you?”
Carolyn shook her head slowly and then swept her brunette locks off her face.
“She kept doing this in London, disappearing before I woke up, off on some crazy suicide mission. If she’s gone to Monza by herself I’ll…”
“I don’t think she has; her gym kits gone too. She left it out on the chair last night. Jesus it’s not even eight o’clock yet. Since when did she become so obsessed with being the fittest doctor in A&E?”
“It must be something to do with all the assassins following her around. I’ve been happy getting reacquainted with the sofa since all that came to an end but Amy? She’ll be the fittest doctor in Manchester by the time we start on the wards. She was cranking it up to twice a day last week. I’m actually really worried about her.”
“So who was calling? Bit early isn’t it, especially if it’s someone back home.”
Carolyn reached for the offending mobile.
“She’s scared someone from the media will get wind of her story through the Uni gossips and blow her cover before the trial.”
Carolyn shook her head looking at the phone.
“It just says ‘international’ but there are over thirty missed calls. No texts though.”
“My mum’s given up texting me when I’m in Manchester because they’re so erratic,” Francesca explained. “She reckons smoke signals from the Sistine Chapel use more advanced technology than texting between the two countries.”
“Well someone was pretty keen…”
Carolyn placed Amy’s phone back onto the bedside table just as the sound of a key card swiping gave way to the door opening.
“Pretty keen for what?” Amy said flinging her wet towel into the bathroom.
“Pretty keen to speak to you. Good workout?”
“Very. Just what I needed to start the day.”
“And it’s a pretty important day,” Francesca chanced with an opportune smile. “How are you feeling about it all?”
With the sweat of her workout still clinging to her forehead, Amy strode over to the thick, hotel curtains, throwing them open and letting the early morning sunlight stream in before opening the window vent.
“I feel great, like it’s time to cast some light onto the missing chapters of my life but it’s strange,” she deliberated, “I feel in total control of my emotions…for the time being anyway. I’m more bothered about their reactions than mine. I’ve had a few weeks to get my head around it and now I just want to meet them. So who’s been trying to call me?”
“It’s just saying an international number but the foreign ring tone hasn’t put them off, they’ve tried thirty six times.”
The apprehension on Amy’s face was apparent.
“Don’t stress. It won’t be the papers,” Carolyn reassured. “But if anyone does blab about any of this, I’ll personally go to town on them.”
“Well if they haven’t left a name or a number there’s nothing I can do about it is there? Besides I’ve got my own call to make.”
Amy sat down in the hotel chair and slipped off her trainers.
“Are you sure you want to do it now?” Francesca asked.
“Yeah, they might not hang up this time…and I do want to try and break them in as gently as I can. Do you mind? Just run through the explanation that we agreed but don’t tell them we’re coming over just yet, maybe just ask if they want to meet us and see what they say.”
Francesca nodded and stretched over for her own mobile, plucking it from the floor by the side of her bed, and pulling it against the charger until it popped free from the cable.
“Well, let’s hope for a better reaction this time round, hey?”
Carolyn looked nervously at Amy as their friend and Italian translator dialled the number that DCI Flowers had tracked down for them; Amy’s blood parents. The sound of the phone ringing felt excruciating until finally Francesca spoke.
“Ciao Signor Serpellini, come stai?”
Her words flowed in her native tongue as she navigated through the planned explanation, detailing the delicate nature of Amy’s re-emergence into their lives until Serpellini began shouting over Francesca’s words. She struggled to pacify the voice as its anger intensified, building to a crescendo of garbled Italian before the line went dead. The call was over almost as soon as it had begun.
“I’m sorry,” Francesca said, turning to Amy. “But that went marginally worse than last time.”
“What did he say?”
“Just that whoever we were, and whatever we thought we were doing to his family…to stop it or he’d call the police. He begged us to leave him alone, said we were sick and then hung up. Shall I redial?”
Amy nodded tentatively but she knew it would be engaged.
“It must be one hell of a head fuck for them,” Carolyn sympathised. “They could’ve had all sorts of cranks contacting them over the last twenty odd years. Maybe if we get the local police involved first…”
“If I’d wanted police involvement I’d have brought Flowers and Needham with us,” Amy snapped before apologising. “Sorry, I just don’t want any police involvement, no leaks, no media, no bevy of news crews, jostling for position and no eyes of the world on me. I don’t want anyone knowing about this, Caz. It’s too dangerous. Like, Charlie warned, it has to be this way.”
“But I thought everyone involved had been locked up.”
Amy glared at Carolyn, only briefly annoyed by her show of naivety.
“Do you really think the whole of Khasbulatov’s international operation has fallen like a house of cards since his arrest? I don’t need anyone finding out about this and the only way that happens is to stay stum; this is between us three and Joanne.”
“And Flowers,” Carolyn added.
“Yeah and he’s sworn to secrecy. He’s not even told Needham. It’s not a police matter so it has nothing to do with her.”
“You’re right, I guess this needs to be as low key as possible.”
“Maybe the Sepellini’s will be more receptive face to face,” Francesca offered, hoping to usher the tension out of the room. “Once they see you and maybe even recognise you, things might be different.”
“You’ve seen the pictures,” Amy said pessimistically. “If I don’t recognise me how the hell are they supposed to? I was barely a toddler when I was taken.”
“There’s always your scar, the proof that you are her, the girl with the webbed toes who get snatched in Sicily.”
“Agreed,” Carolyn chipped in siding with Francesca’s optimism. “I say we stay positive and hope for some sort of maternal intuition to kick in. Come on, let’s get ready, pack up our things, grab some breakfast and head over there. Seize the moment, so to speak. Come on Aims, you’ve come this far. I’m more excited about this than I’ve ever been for anything in my own life.”
Amy smiled and nodded defiantly. Carolyn was right; she had come too far. Nothing would stop her meeting her blood parents; not Khasbulatov, not the threat of rejection, not anything.
“Sorry, I’m late; the delays at Heathrow were abysmal and then the roads here were tailed up all the way from Zurich.”
Superintendent Needham clambered into the back of the white, telecommunications van doubling as the control centre for the operation. The lakeside houses had seemed to tier up on top of each other along Lake Zurich but she’d no time to admire the picturesque drive to Klichberg. Her mobile phone had ensured that not a working second was missed. She wanted every case the Met were working on to flow through her. Her mood was tetchy though; she detested any crime involving children and so far the operations to account for every name on Amy Walker’s damned list of children stolen to order had left a bad taste in her mouth with not one positive conclusion. No arrests, no rescues, not even any bones; each one was just a cul-de-sac of frustration and financial waste.
“Gentlemen, so what have I missed?”
DCI Flowers turned back to the array of CCTV screens running down one side of the van.
“Nothing much yet, ma’am,” he replied, “except the introductions. Gentleman, this is Superintendent Needham of the London Metropolitan Police. Superintendent, this is Detective Vincent Leroy of the Zurich police, Detective Marcel Zubriggen of the Federal Criminal Police and Kommandant Philippe Stockli of the International Police Co-Operation Division.
“We’ve all teleconferenced several times so I’m sure we’re well enough acquainted,” Needham asserted whilst nodding her greetings all the same. “I hope we’re all well. I’m trusting too everything is in place. I can’t stress enough that we need something positive to come from one of these operations, sooner rather than later. So fill me in. Where are we up to?”
“Leroy’s team has been monitoring the suspect for the last few weeks ma’am, so I’ll let him bring you up to speed.”
The Swiss detective took over; his French accent immediately coming to the fore. He clicked a few keys on his laptop and turned the screen towards the superintendent so she could see the various images download.
“Hans Gerschwiler is forty-seven-years-old and a successful banker in the city for Geiger Financial,” he explained. “He is what you may have heard termed a Gnomes of Zurich; an old school investment banker, somewhat secretive in his activities and his business ties.”
“Gnomes like to keep their riches underground,” Flowers chipped in, keen to inform.
The ringing of his mobile phone suddenly filled the converted van, wiping the all-knowing smile from his face. He looked at the caller display and then anxiously at Needham.
“I need to take this one…but I’ll take it outside so I don’t disturb your update.”
The superintendent’s flashed look of irritation told Leroy to continue.
“The only son of Christophe and Ramona, Hans Gerschwiler was raised in Lugano and studied Business and Law at Milan University settling into Zurich life during the still halcyon days of Swiss banking. He is chief executive at Geiger Financial, one of Zurich’s top locally-born banks, takes home a six figure salary, runs five miles, four days a week and ten miles at the weekend. He’s a member of the Zurich racket club, a keen skier and has been dating Urshula Fontana, a twenty-six-year-old TV presenter and ‘it’ girl from Zurich’s glittarazzi for the last sixteen months. They share a hectic social life; dining; the theatre; keen patrons at Grand Casino Baden and are well known in many high-end social circles in Zurich. She stays three nights a week at his lakeside property, he never stays at hers.”
Leroy paused only briefly before Needham jumped in.
“Well, don’t they sound like the perfect couple?” she nearly hissed. “Unfortunately I’m going to have to do much, much better than that to convince my commissioner that this whole operation isn’t another complete waste of financial and human resource. He’s really breathing down my neck on this.”
“Well believe me this isn’t a waste of resource, not even nearly,” Leroy replied, briefly flashing the white of his teeth. “The bank details you gave us were registered with Ramona Gerschwiler, the suspect’s mother. Her account was set up in the early-nineties; ninety two to be more precise. Of course there is nothing unusual about that apart from the fact she died nine years earlier. This account was used only twice before it was closed; once to pay the sum of seven hundred and twenty thousand Swiss Francs to the London account associated with your Russian/Chechen gangster and also four months previous to pay around three hundred thousand pounds to a construction company; despite no planning permission ever being submitted. That’s a lot of unseen construction work for a brand new property. Gerschwiler moved into it six months before Anne-Laure Deschamps, went missing and he’s lived there ever since.”
The young girl’s image flashed onto the screen. Needham’s eyes had already lit up.
“And Anne-Laure is the girl taken from Avignon?”
“Indeed, snatched from the streets in nineteen ninety seven with no clues left behind…”
“Until now,” Needham corrected.
The details of a snatch in Avignon had been outlined in the coded information handed over by Amy Walker. The dates matched the Deschamps girl’s disappearance and the data recovered from Friers’ data stick. Khasbulatov’s accounts had led them here.
“And presuming he was the recipient is there any suspicious activity that would suggest she might still be alive?” the Superintendent asked.
“That would all depend on how suspicious you need that activity to be,” Detective Leroy explained. “Whenever Mademoiselle Fontana stays over, Gerschwiler leaves for work at the same time as her, only to return home fifteen to twenty minutes later. We’ve placed the house under surveillance for two weeks and have seen him return six times but despite surveillance from several vantage points outside the house, we’ve seen no viable movement by him through his home when he returns. Why does he come home on these days? How does he remain out of our view, what is he doing? These are the questions we don’t yet know the answers to.”
“So he’s keeping ‘something’ from his ‘it’ girl and his perfect businessman lifestyle?”
“It would seem so,” Leroy replied. “Aside from this; his shopping bills have an unusually high level of staple dietary product; milk, bread, barrels of water….much too much for a man spending most of his life either working or socialising or exercising. He’s a fitness fanatic not someone that stays at home eating toast.”
Detective Leroy suddenly turned back to his CCTV monitors.
He checked his watch.
“At exactly eight o’clock, on every morning that Fontana stays over, they leave together, kiss at her car and then they both drive off. She heads off to one of the TV production studios in central Zurich; he follows her for a while, pulls over for petrol and then returns to his house.”
Needham watched intently as the door to Gerschwiler’s impressive lake level mansion opened and out stepped the happy couple; her dressed in a bright red pencil dress, him in a crisp white shirt and charcoal suit.
“He’s certainly well presented,” she said as Gerschwiler strode over to Fontana’s AudiR8 with a smile emblazoned on his face and his suit jacket under his arm.
The late summer sun bounced over the well-waxed silver metal of her car obscuring the closed circuit image briefly.
“How far away are we from the action?”
“Barely a minute walk. They’re three streets further down into the valley but don’t worry we have snipers and surveillance deployed much closer.”
“I wasn’t worrying,” Needham replied with a half-smile, “just intrigued. What makes you think today will be different to any other?”
“Because today we find out why Gerschwiler returns back to his house.”
Needham watched the couple’s kiss run over into a flurry of staccato-like pecks on the lips until their tight embrace eventually ran dry. The TV presenter then scuttled on her high heels over to her sports car, reapplying her lipstick before driving away from Gerschwiler’s impressive abode. The boyfriend followed her R8 out of the driveway in his Mercedes. Barely thirty seconds later the property swarmed with snipers and surveillance from every angle; a blink of an eye and they were in the secured back garden of the property. Within less than a minute, the full TV screens depicting the outside of Gerschwiler’s home, had split into four detailing the property from the inside as well; his hallway, his entrance, his kitchen, his stairs; every part of his home flashed up onto the screens as the surveillance team deployed their minuscule cameras.
“So now we wait,” Leroy explained. “And we pray…pray that poor Anne-Laure is in there.”
“We need to pray for much more than that,” Needham corrected.
Amy Walker’s list of the damned had already unearthed too much distaste. Needham needed this one to be different.
“We need to pray that she’s still alive.”