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Authors: Madge Swindells

Hot Ice

BOOK: Hot Ice
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Hot Ice

MADGE SWINDELLS

With thanks to Peter Archer, Jenni Lajzerowicz, Louise Watson and Shelley Power for their valuable editorial advice.

Christine Winters, lawyer, economist, voracious gobbler of cases, the company’s youngest whizz-kid, who bills her time at two hundred and fifty pounds an hour, glances impatiently at her watch as she calculates the cost of playing truant. The wedding procession is late, but she longs to catch a glimpse of her old school friend, Sienna Sheik, now a bride, so she remains loitering by the traffic lights near the Dorchester Hotel. For days the media have been filled with pictures of the beautiful socialite who will marry a wealthy distant cousin in a private ceremony at the Dorchester and join a lavish celebration party shortly afterwards. It’s an arranged marriage. The arranger is Mohsen Sheik, the bride’s father, known in London as India’s billionaire ‘diamond king’.

Chris mops her forehead with a tissue. Is it really this hot and humid or is she suffering from the wine she drank at a boring, but vital, business lunch.
Squinting against the setting sun, she sees a long queue of stretch limousines, strewn with flowers, approaching slowly. As they draw near she gapes at the colourful silks and satins, the men’s flashing eyes and good looks, their splendid turbans, jewels and bright satin tunics. The women, too, are wearing stunning outfits; each one a bird of paradise! Now she’s glad she turned down the invitation to the reception. Nowadays they live in different worlds, but once they were like sisters.

Her heart thumping, Chris watches Sienna pass by in the back of a grey Daimler. She gasps at her shimmering, jewelled, blue and gold gown. How lovely she looks, her glossy black hair hanging loose over her shoulders, half-hidden by a glittering blue veil. Then she catches a glimpse of those
well-known
, limpid brown eyes looking exceptionally sad and this moves her. Catching sight of Chris, Sienna leans forward to wave, but the car moves on. She gestures madly through the back window, beckoning Chris to the Dorchester.

The lights change to red and half the convoy halts. The bridal car has moved ahead, but is beginning to slow when two cars race forward on the wrong side of the road and stop short with a stench of burning brakes. Shock sends Chris reeling back against the traffic lights. She’s surrounded by hysterical screams and blazing guns. Gunmen in grinning masks are belting down the road towards the bridal car shouting at random. Shots come from
across the road where eight more masked men are racing towards Sienna. It seems to Chris that she’s tumbled into a Matrix movie. This can’t be real.

A few guests abandon their cars and flee towards the shops, but most of them sit stiff and upright as if waiting for normality to return. Someone is blowing a whistle. It goes on and on. Blood splatters the road in front of Chris as an armed man falls from a car and lies spread-eagled on the tarmac. The sight of his body acts like a starter’s gun and Chris leaps forward in a practiced sprint.

Two gunmen have wrenched open Sienna’s door. They are trying to drag her from the car, but she’s hanging on as her dress rips and she loses her veil. Time has switched to dead slow.

‘Help! Help me!’

Now they’ve pulled her out of the car, but no one helps. Her guards are slumped over the back seat. The doors of a green removal van, parked innocuously by the curb, slide open. Sienna is screaming and clawing the gunmen as they try to hustle her towards the van.

A voice from the van’s shadowy interior yells: ‘Move it! Move it! Move it!’ A rap nightmare with gunshots as percussion.

Chris regrets the wine as she propels herself forward. Too slow! Why am I so slow? Sienna’s silk sleeve is torn away, leaving her shoulder bare.

‘Get back…back!’ a gunman yells.

Chris is panting, forcing herself to leap across the
last few metres, hands outstretched, reaching for Sienna.

A last lunge clutches a handful of silk as Sienna is hurled, screaming, into the dark void. The gunmen leap in after her, shooting randomly, and Chris’s world begins to spin.

Real life lacks a good director, she decides, as she watches from a vantage point she never knew she had, floating somewhere high above her head.

 

Chris opens her eyes and closes them quickly. She feels absolutely vile. Nausea grips her stomach, her mouth and throat are on fire, her head is threatening to explode and she seems to be slowly revolving. Plucking up courage, she opens her eyes again. A man in a white coat is bending over her and there’s a strong stench of disinfectant.

‘Where am I?’

‘You’re in the recovery unit of the University College Hospital, Christine. I’m one of your doctors, Tim Rose. We’ve removed the bullet from your shoulder and stitched you up. It’s only a flesh wound. You’re going to be fine.’ The doctor’s eyes glow with admiration. A bedside manner taken to extremes, Chris decides.

‘I’ve done a good job, if you don’t mind me saying so. In a year’s time you won’t even see the scar. Nothing to spoil your beauty.’ His hand rests on hers for longer than necessary, while his eyes keep on glowing.

‘When can I go home?’ Chris can hardly talk her throat is so sore.

‘You were knocked out when you fell against the curb, so you have a touch of concussion, but we’ve X-rayed you and there’s nothing visibly wrong. We’ll keep you here for a few days, to be on the safe side. Do you remember anything at all?’

‘A little…it’s coming back to me.’

‘I’ll be up to see you later.’

She thinks for a while. The van’s doors had closed in her face leaving a poignant memory of Sienna looking frantic. ‘So what happened to Sienna?’ she asks aloud.

‘Who? Ah! The bride.’ Her male nurse is tall, half-oriental and he looks kind. ‘She’s been kidnapped. Her father’s a billionaire, according to the media. I guess they’re after a ransom. Sometimes it helps to be poor like me.

‘It’s your lucky day, I would say. Even I could do better at that range and I’ve never handled a gun. You’ll be home in a few days’ time…or so the doctor said…as long as you promise not to barge into too many gun fights. We’re taking you to the ward now. We’re full, so you’ll be in tropical diseases, but don’t worry, there’re no parasites around; they can’t stand the cold weather. Well, neither can I.’

He keeps up a bantering monologue in his soft voice with a pronounced London accent as they wait for the lift. Eventually they emerge on the fifth
floor where he wheels her trolley along a beige corridor to a two-bed ward with a floral curtain hanging between the beds. Two uniformed policewomen are waiting there. They move towards her as her ward nurse hurries in.

‘Just a minute,’ she says. ‘Dr Rose says you’ll have to wait quite a while. Why not come back later. Gently does it,’ she adds, as they transfer Chris from the trolley to the bed. For a flesh wound it hurts like hell. The ward nurse ushers out the police.

‘Water, please,’ Chris croaks. ‘How did I get shot?’

‘You tried to rescue that unfortunate girl and one of her kidnappers shot you. Don’t you remember?’

‘It seems like a dream, but the pain is real enough.’

‘It’ll get worse before it gets better. Sip and spit. No swallowing.’ He passes a glass and Chris raises her head, with maximum effort.

‘You’re allowed morphine so ring if you need it. You were given an injection for pain in the theatre, but there’s no point in unnecessary suffering. The police want to ask you what you saw, but you don’t have to talk to them until you feel strong enough. Luckily, someone handed your bag and briefcase to the ambulance driver. It’s at reception. They’ll be sending it up soon. By the way, the media were here, too. Your doctor told them to come back later. Your mad dash has made you famous.’

Why famous? She failed and that hurts as much as the wound. Closing her eyes she tries not to remember.

 

The ward is almost dark when she wakes. The policewomen are sitting beside the bed. One of them, young and blonde, introduces herself and her boss, the DI.

‘You’re quite the heroine,’ the sergeant tells her. ‘According to bystanders you ran like a professional.’

‘You should leave this kind of thing to the police.’ The DI speaks with a soft Scottish accent. ‘We’re trained and we have the right equipment.’

‘But you weren’t there,’ Chris murmurs.

‘You’re lucky to be alive. Tell us all you can remember. Start with the gunmen. What did they look like?’ The sergeant takes out her notebook.

Chris closes her eyes and tries to re-enact the ghastly scene. Once she starts, she’s surprised how much she remembers.

‘I’ve spoken to your mother, Chris,’ the sergeant says. ‘She told me that you’re a gymnast, an acrobatic dancer and you studied martial arts and kick boxing. Strange choices for a lawyer.’

Chris laughs. ‘Being a lawyer means being on the receiving end of a lot of tension. Sport is the best way to work it out of your system.’

Eventually the police put away their notebooks and stand up.

‘You have nothing to worry about,’ the DI tells her. ‘I’ve organised a round-the-clock police guard to be stationed right outside your ward while you’re here,’ they tell her as they leave.

And then? she wonders.

The following morning Chris is lying in a state of euphoria, which she knows must be due to the morphine, when the wide-eyed nurse announces that the media have arrived and asks if she can show them in. Chris lifts herself with her good elbow.

‘I feel light-headed. Would you pass me the water, please,’ she asks the nurse.

The interviewer, young and caring, dressed down in jeans and a black cardigan, with lanky straight hair and a face devoid of make-up, shakes her hand solemnly and introduces herself simply as Jane Irving. The cameraman murmurs ‘Hi.’ He’s tall and stooped and resembles an ancient hippie, with his long, grey hair and tired eyes.

‘Just what were you thinking, Chris, when you ran to the rescue in the face of armed kidnappers?’ Jane asks.

‘I thought…I suppose I thought I might delay them until help came.’

The real truth was, she hadn’t thought at all. There wasn’t time. She does her best to answer their questions, but she feels so tired. When she starts to mumble, the nurse ushers them out and she falls into a deep, disturbed sleep.

Chris opens her eyes reluctantly at the sound of a voice. Dusk is gathering outside. That’s strange. Her night nurse is leaning over her. ‘What day is it? I’m losing track.’

‘Thursday.’

‘Only my second day. Is that possible? It seems as if I’ve been here forever.’

She has slept since lunch. There’s little else to do. She lies staring at the ceiling, pondering on life’s ironies: like the promises she’s made to catch up on lost sleep, but now that she has the chance, she’s bored. She wants to go home, but every movement hurts like hell. It’s the torn muscles and ligaments that hurt so much, she was told by her sexy surgeon. She slithers down the bed on her back, hooks her feet under the iron bedstead and sits up. Shit! It’s agonising. If this is a flesh wound, what would the real thing feel like? She really doesn’t
want to know. Swinging her feet to the floor, she stands up cautiously, while Nurse Brendan hovers.

‘Don’t worry. I can make it to the bathroom.’

Brendan gives the thumbs up sign and smiles sympathetically. She’s a sweet and patient woman with kind eyes and a face that invites confidences. She has the sort of beauty that you have to search for, but if you do, it’s there, Chris decides. One of these days a clever doctor is going to snap her up.

‘Call if you need me. You have a visitor, by the way.’ Brendan gives an intimate, knowing smile.

‘My mother?’

‘No. A friend. I could do with a friend like him…he reminds me of someone, but right now I can’t think who.’

Chris lingers in the bathroom. Bloody typical, she decides. When she arrived, reception called her mother and asked her to bring books, some night clothes, underwear and toiletries, which her mother had duly delivered to the Sister. She hasn’t returned since. So what’s new! Mother hadn’t visited when she had her tonsils removed, nor when she fell from the trapeze at the circus school when she was twelve. Mum is a bit like a dust extractor: she sucks in love and caring and puffs out recycled air. Sadly, the art of loving has been denied her. Besides, hospitals frighten her. Nevertheless, the ward is full of fruit and flowers from clients and work colleagues and there is an arrangement of exotic orchids from Sienna’s father, with a simple message:
‘Thank you. I’ll be in touch later, but not yet. M Sheik.’

The nurse puffs up the pillows as Chris hobbles back and slithers into bed. ‘No, no. I can manage. I must manage.’

‘I’ll send in Benjamin Searle then, shall I?’

The name is unfamiliar. ‘What happened to supper?’

‘We didn’t want to wake you. I’ll warm it up after he’s gone.’

‘Thanks. Send him in then.’

 

If eyes mirror the soul then her visitor is sexy, clever, humorous, sensitive, perceptive and tender. She brings herself up short. ‘What have they pumped into me here? I haven’t seen a desirable man in months.’

Chris awards him her five-star approval, mainly for his expressive eyes, while accepting that there must be a downside.

‘Ben Searle,’ the stranger says. He pushes his hand towards her with a tentative smile. ‘I lied to the nurse and your police guard…said I was a close friend. Sorry, but I need to talk to you. I’m working on an investigation which might have some connection with the kidnapping. To be honest, I saw you on TV. I was impressed with your courage. I’m hoping you can describe some of the criminals.’

What if she could. She’s too close for comfort. Would he whip out a gun, or something more
silent, like a handy, pocket-sized garrotte? Looking sexy doesn’t guarantee a blameless life. She’s a close eyewitness to a serious crime and he could be one of the criminals. She glances through the glass panels towards the guard, but his back is turned.

‘Do you have some identification?’

‘Very sensible of you.’ He produces a card which reads:
Benjamin Searle, Financial Investigations Inc
., plus his qualifications which, strangely, are similar to her own – law and finance. Chris has heard of the company often enough.
American-based
, they opened their London branch five years ago. They work mainly for governments and multinationals, investigating just about anything to do with politics or marketing. The term ‘industrial spying’ may not impress them, Chris thinks, but it accurately describes a lot of what they do. Still, anyone can have a card printed.

‘Industrial spying,’ she murmurs, smiling to herself. Searle reacts fast.

‘That’s not a word we like to hear, Miss Winters.’

‘Oh, please, call me Chris.’

‘And likewise, I’m Ben.’

Pulling up a chair, he sits down.

Chris slithers out of the opposite side of the bed. ‘Would you mind waiting while I freshen up?’ Grabbing her bag and gown, Chris hurries to the bathroom and shuts the door. Moments later she’s dialling her secretary’s number. ‘I’m fine,’ she whispers. ‘Truly. But I can’t talk now. Call this
number and ask them to describe Benjamin Searle. He’s one of their investigators and he’s here. Get right back to me please. It’s urgent. And thanks.’

The reply is taking too long. Chris runs the tap while holding on.

‘You there, Chris?’

‘Sure.’

‘His secretary said he looks like Ralph Fiennes: brown hair, brown eyes, about six-foot…oh…and married with three kids. She made a point of saying that. Perhaps she fancies him herself. I know I would.’

‘Thanks. Well done.’

Chris hurries back to the ward. ‘OK. You’ve passed. So what do you want to know Mr Searle?’

He looks amused. ‘Those masked gunmen you saw at close quarters…were they foreign? You said they wore masks, but what sort of an impression did you gain?’

‘Impression? Fear was about it,’ she answers facetiously.

‘You were right up close to one of the gunmen. Right?’

She nods. ‘One thing bothers me. The one o’clock news mentioned that al-Qaeda were believed to be responsible, but these thugs…it’s hard to explain…they didn’t have the sort of arrogance that goes with fanaticism. Quite simply, they were thugs, and they were overly tense and nervous. I felt that they hadn’t done something as
serious as this before and that they weren’t a team. It was a messy job. There was a lot of yelling and swearing in strong, North Country accents. Only four of the eight had darkish skins.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Absolutely. One of them, the one who shot me, had white skin and pale ginger hairs around his wrists and neck.’ For the third time she relates all that she can remember. ‘Any news of Sienna?’ she asks.

‘Alas, no,’ he murmurs without looking up as he scans his notebook.

But that isn’t his problem, is it. Kidnapping is strictly for the Force. So what interest does Ben Searle have in the kidnapping?

Chris leans back, closing her eyes. For the last few nights she has dreamed of Sienna…odd fragments of the past and present moulded into a kaleidoscope of absurd happenings which make no sense at all. At school, Sienna had often told her that her father owned several diamond-cutting workshops, but on the one o’clock news on television, he was described as India’s diamond king. Of course she’s always known that Sienna’s family are wealthy, so she assumed that the kidnapping was for a ransom. Yet Ben thinks there’s a link with his investigation. So what is he investigating? The diamond industry?

He looks up. ‘I told you how useful you’d be. You noticed much more than you realised. You were very quick, too.’

‘On the contrary, I took forever to get into gear, ambling off in slow motion.’

‘Actually, not so. Shock does seem to alter our perception of time. Three bystanders said you leapt out into the road like a sprinter at the starting gun. They said you’d almost reached the van when you were shot. You were lucky that they missed. Heroic but foolish. What prompted you to make that mad dash?’

‘If you must know, I felt disgusted with everyone. The guests were terrified and running out of control, the gunmen were shouting and shooting indiscriminately. People were trying to hide instead of helping. Only two of the gunmen seemed to know what they were doing. The others looked panic-stricken. I thought I had a chance, but no one else helped. Otherwise…’

‘Don’t be too hard on us humans. Most people have never been in a fight. I don’t suppose you have.’

‘Not true.’ Chris looks away and zips up. Why is Searle watching her so strangely with a secretive, brooding expression? She can’t have impressed him with her mannish silk pyjamas, one arm in a sling and no makeup. Some women have all the luck, she decides, remembering that he’s married.

‘Yeah, well, you could say that my life’s one fight after the next, on behalf of my clients, of course.’

‘So you’re a lawyer.’ Searle murmurs.

‘Entertainment and media mainly. Strangely we
have much the same qualifications, so naturally I’m curious about your work. What exactly is the connection between your investigation and diamonds?’

He seems put out by the question, but her obvious interest demands an answer.

‘Of course my brief is confidential, but in a nutshell, we use our intellects and our expertise to solve whatever problems our clients may encounter in the financial world or in their marketing strategies. Often it’s simply a case of discovering what their competitors are up to. The diamond industry is currently beset with all kinds of problems.’

‘Sienna’s father, Mohsen Sheik, has the lion’s share of India’s diamond exports, so you must be looking into all that price-fixing and hoarding…’

Ben scowls at her. ‘Don’t take this any further, Chris. You’re too perceptive.’

‘Sorry I can’t be more helpful.’

‘You’re very helpful. Thanks. Is there somewhere I can contact you? Do you have a card?’

Chris reaches for her bag and gives him one. Regret lingers after he’s gone. Is it him or his lifestyle that she hankers after?

 

Not expecting to see Ben Searle again, she is surprised when he arrives with flowers and fruit early the following morning.

‘Hello, Chris. I popped in to bring you these…’

‘And?’

‘And I washed the fruit.’

She lets him off the hook. He’ll tell her why he’s here in his own good time. She pops a grape into her mouth. ‘Thank you…have some. They’re delicious.’

‘No thanks. Of course, you’re right, I could have sent them over, but I need to see you. It’s like this…’ Ben glowers at his hands as if wondering where to start.

‘We have a vacancy,’ he begins, looking up to see if he’s offending her. ‘The work has its drawbacks, long hours, too much travelling. We’re looking for someone rather special. You have the qualifications, but the job requires verve, courage, the ability to think and act fast.’ He pauses, gazing questioningly at her. Once again she is struck by his expressive eyes.

‘Well, go on.’

‘OK…courage, intuitive powers, sensitivity, morality. You seem to be exactly the sort of person we’re looking for. You’re not married, are you?’

‘In a way.’

‘In what sort of a way?’

‘I support my mother and live with her because nowadays she hates being left alone.’

‘You’d double your salary! There’s a good deal of travelling and it’s exciting work. You’d get to use your creative intellect even more than your training.’

‘So where’s the catch?’

‘You’re seldom home. The work plays havoc with family life. It can be a bit hair-raising at times, but of course we have strict working boundaries…’

‘Would you spell that out?’

‘OK, while we don’t hesitate to make use of computer hacking, we avoid breaking and entering. Naturally, in theory there’s a fine line between—’

‘I see what you mean,’ she interrupts him.

‘I thought I’d sound you out. If you’re interested we’ll proceed through the normal channels.’

‘Which are?’

‘Our headhunter will contact you. Followed by meetings with the managing partner, discussions and so on.’

‘It’s exactly what I’d like, but…’

Chris takes a deep breath and says ‘no,’ regretfully. She has her mother to consider.

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