In a pernicious twist of fate, Chief Inspector Detective Stewart White is automatically suspended from duty when his DNA is discovered at the scene of a bank robbery in the fourth installment of the D.I. White Mysteries.
White suspects that the DNA was planted by one of the many criminals he helped put away during his career, but his suspension makes investigation impossible—until three of his colleagues cash in some vacation time to do the legwork that White no longer can do himself.
While White’s covert investigation focuses on tying together a string of seemingly unconnected robberies, an eastern Mediterranean crime boss, Sadik El Al Safari, is taking full advantage of the distraction to expand his refugee smuggling and drug operations into the UK—with the help of his beautiful and ruthlessly ambitious lieutenant, Fizzah Hammad.
Can White and his team trace it all back in time to stop Fizzah before her true plans are implemented?
“Detective Inspector Stewart White is an awesome character, portrayed three-dimensionally. A brilliant series to read again. Highly recommended.” — My Train of Thoughts On… Book Review Blog
Aldo, as he preferred to be called, stood at the end of the Geneva airport concourse. As always, he swore it was a half-mile longer than the last time he had been there. He wandered to the car hire concessions, booked with the first one he came to and, documents complete, walked back along the hall until he reached a coffee shop.
Their meeting was hardly auspicious. Al was turning around at the side of a table, Fizzah was shuffling her overnight case under the adjacent table. They collided and showered each other with hot coffee.
“I am so sorry,” and then, in just passable French. “Je suis desolé, mademoiselle.”
The young woman was swearing in English. She collected herself enough to reply. “No, it was my fault—or perhaps both of us were careless.”
Correct, grammatically, but not a native English speaker.
There were repeated protestations as to guilt but in the end, Al bought two more coffees and used a tray to bring them, together with a selection of pastries, to the table.
“This is very nice, but the coffee stained my blouse, I shall have to change.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I expect at the airport hotel, I haven’t yet made a booking, I am at a loose end. You?”
“Neither have I. I’m loose-endish too. I was about to motor down into France and have a look around. There’s quite a lovely lake just over the border, a pretty town too.”
“I suppose I will be flying back when I’ve booked a ticket. Beirut, I shall be returning to Beirut.”
Al nodded. “That sounds like a romantic place to live.”
“Romantic? Not as I see it, but it’s fine, I guess. What about you?”
“I’ve been along to see the new Gotthard Base Tunnel—from the inside. I’m an engineer; tunnels are one of my specialities, so I’m sightseeing.”
“Ah, er…a busman’s holiday!”
“Exactly. You do speak English well.”
“I am in the travel business…part of my job description.”
Suddenly her entire demeanor changed. Frowning, she said: “Let’s not do this. You are Aldo, sent here to meet Sadik, aren’t you?”
“What if I am?” Surprise made him sound angry. “Who the hell are you?”
“I am Sadik’s right arm—that’s who, but if we are going to do business with one another you will have to understand I don’t pussyfoot around.” She folded her arms. “So let me ask, how do you expect this meeting to work out? Are we just going to fence around with each other or do we spend time more productively? What would you want to do with these two days, if we don’t get fed up and call it off?”
Al took a deep breath, grinned, and changed the subject. “That was extremely professional, the way you made it look as if I’d bumped into you and spilled your coffee.” He raised his eyebrows. “I have a hire car booked—suppose we spent a day or two together? Mmm? You could go to the wash room here and change your blouse or I could buy you one from a shop on the concourse. Then we could go see some of the sights nearby before deciding where to book rooms. Would you enjoy that?”
Fizz thought about it for a long time: the time it took to chat extensively, to start two bottles of wine—though she drank sparingly—and enjoy a pleasant meal. Eventually, she looked at her companion and nodded. “That idea of yours, about the rooms, sounds very good.”
“Right, I’ll see if I can find us a couple of singles.”
She stood up to go, picked up her case and stopped. “You know, I enjoyed the wine and I think I might be growing to like you. It doesn’t have to be two rooms.”
# # #
After lunch, the trip to Talloires was quick and non-stop. No one bothered about their passports at the border as the number of people going to and coming from jobs in both countries was astronomical right now.
“What exactly is your job?” he asked, speeding up a little on the French side of the border.
“I organize travel parties. It’s a few singles and a number of families moving into Europe. We have couriers who arrange permanent accommodation for them. We book the buses and take them to their destinations.” She paused. “But this conversation has to be two-way. You don’t just drill tunnels, do you?”
“No.” Al pursed his lips. “I only included the drilling element after finishing my studies at Uni. I took it up when my father was imprisoned. After I examined my life, I thought it the only thing to do. I’ll continue to do it, I expect, until he’s free.”
Al pulled the big four-by-four into the car park, squeezing it into a corner just as a second drove in. Finding no room, the driver backed out and parked on the street and watched as they walked to the entrance.
The light was beginning to fail and it was getting chilly; they hurried inside. A large tawny-colored cat on the lowest step was licking a paw, yellow eyes looked up at them suspiciously. Inside, though, it was warm and friendly.
The Abbaye had been built as a monastery some four hundred years ago; the interior was huge and dim except just around the reception desk. The clerk processed his booking. “You have been here before, sir?” The have was very slightly emphasized.
Al nodded. “Occasionally.”
“Welcome back then, Monsieur.”
Al looked round to see where Fizzah had gone.
“Hmm, you are looking for your companion, perhaps?”
Again, he nodded.
“I believe she is sitting over there, Monsieur. Part-way along the cloister.”
He hung the rucksack on his shoulder by one strap and walked down the cloister, where monks had once shuffled on sandaled feet, their hands folded in prayer and their minds on matters far more sacred than the thoughts circulating in his own.
“Fizz?” he said quietly.
The woman turned her head and jumped to her feet in one quick movement. “Al.” She dropped the magazine. “What a fabulous old place.” Grinning, she stepped across to him, put her arms around his neck and drew his mouth down to hers.
Al smiled. What a difference a few hours could make—and he realized he was starting to warm to her. This was no silly young girl. Fizzah was a real woman, all woman.
The end of the cloister was closed off by a floor-to-vaulted ceiling and a wall-to-wall mirror. Gazing over her shoulder, Al watched his arms slide around her waist and pull her close, then he saw his hands slip downward and gently squeeze her buttocks.
“This is a monastery, you naughty man.” Fizzah wriggled closer.
“I was just thinking the same. High time we chased the shadows away. ” He took hold of her overnight case. “Shall we go up? It’s room twenty-five.”
“Been here before?”
Al shook his head. “No. It was the first phone number I called that had space. They didn’t have two singles.”
“Where were they from, your customers? All Middle Eastern?”
As they took the stairs up to the first floor, Fizz replied over her shoulder. “Mainly from Eritrea, this time. I shouldn’t be telling you all this, you know, I’ll have to kill you now. I will tell you this, though: one stayed on in Switzerland. The Americans paid for his transport to CERN.”
Al raised his eyebrows. “A scientist?”
“Yes, a scientist. He was conscripted into the army and couldn’t get out. Imagine a theoretical physicist in the army?”
“In Eritrea? Of course not. Anyway, we got him away. The place must be one of the worst human rights disasters ever.”
“And your company rescues these people for the good of their souls?”
Fizz stopped and looked Al in the face. “These are rich people, rich families. They pay stupendous amounts to get out of places like that.”
“Ah, this one.”
They had come to room twenty-five just as someone came out of a room a little further along. “Bonsoir.”
“Good evening.” Al replied.
The other smiled, looked at Fizzah for several seconds and then hurried on, saying. “Do not be late for dinner, my friends.” The English was heavily accented; the accent was not French.
“That’s odd.” Fizzah muttered as they went into their room. “I almost feel as if I know the guy.”
“I think he tried to park his car outside and had to leave it on the road side. Biggish one similar to ours. He pretty well tailed us all the way from the airport.”
# # #
Dinner swallowed some two hours, seven courses, and an insistent sommelier who tried his best to sell them a seventy-five euro bottle of wine. When they insisted on one glass of house wine—Fizz was practically a teetotaller from habit rather than religious persuasion—the sommelier stuck his nose in the air and sniffed. Looking rather like a spaniel scenting a rich meal elsewhere, he tossed his head and stalked off.
Sometime later, they were waited on by what must have been the youngest waitress in the hotel.
“Is monsieur le sommelier unwell?” Al asked. “His complexion was quite purple.”
She nodded and smiled. “Monsieur Bonjoie is a leetle breathless. He will recover. Ah, Madame, Monsieur,” she looked out to the floodlit lawns, “see, it ees snowing.” After she had taken their order and left, Al began again.
“Your scientist and the others. You do this sort of thing a lot?”
Fizz looked at him carefully before asking: “You really want to know?”
She took a deep breath. “My business is immigration. Illegal immigration, to be exact. I have worked with my present organization and on my own too. We move people to where we want them to go. Sorry, that’s where they want to go; that’s their business, not ours.”
“People trafficking.” Al’s tone was purely interest, not judgemental.
“That’s your name, not mine. And if you want to know more about me, we have occasionally moved drugs, and at least once, weapons. Does that clear up any doubts you may have?” Fizz was obviously not at ease.
“You don’t have to be defensive, you know. I’ll tell you this…” He spread cream on his fruit. “My father is—or maybe was—one of the biggest drug distributors in Britain. Actually, he’s in prison, as you know, but he still has control of a huge amount of the trade. Sadik knows all that too. I presume that’s why he sent you.”
Fizz chuckled. “Sadik doesn’t tell me everything. But your father…perhaps I should meet him.”
“I’m planning on breaking him out soon. Takes a lot of cash though.”
“Cash? That is money, yes?”
Later, they went to bed, though not to sleep.
Later still, Fizz told Al, “You sleep that side tonight. I’m not lying on the damp side.”
“No problem.” Al chuckled. He went into the bathroom, took a long thick towel from the rack, laid it over the sheet, and was asleep in minutes.
# # #
After morning coffee in the cloister, they went out to their gold-colored off-roader.
“Okay, my turn to drive.”
“Did they put blocks on the pedals so you can reach them? Ouch, that hurt.” Al massaged his arm where she’d punched him.
“Ah, I do sometimes hurt my friends when they’re rude.”
Fizz climbed up—and it was a bit of a climb—into the driving seat. She was gunning the engine and making the thing rock as Al got in on the other side.
“Where are we going, then?”
Fizz shook her head. “No idea. You’d better navigate.” She took the vehicle out of the car lot and up the hill.
“Okay,” Al pointed to a side road, “how about there? Look up there too, there are a few paragliders out, even with the snow.”
Fizzah took the vehicle up the steep side road. Where yesterday there would have been sere grass and browned bracken, there was now a uniform white. Here and there, the snow was deep, levelling out hollows and hiding deep drifts.
“Hey, look Fizz. What’s that?”
“I don’t know; I’m a stranger.”
“It’s a lynx, gotta be. It’s got a rabbit or a hare—a mid-morning snack.”
Fizz coasted quietly to a stop and they watched the great cat. Judging from the area of blood-stained snow, it looked as though it had been playing with its catch. The animal stood up—over five feet in length—and took a great bite from the rabbit’s stomach, opening it up in one tearing movement.
A gout of orange flame erupted in the snow between them and the lynx. The animal was off in an instant, leaping across the deeper layers, running over the thinner covering.
“Go!” Al shouted, but Fizz was already going, following the lynx as it dashed for a stand of pine trees a hundred yards away. Al looked up through the windshield as another explosion, closer this time, showered them with snow and dirt. “There’s a fucking chopper up there. They’re not after the lynx; they’re lobbing rocket grenades at us.”
Seconds later, they were within the trees and Fizz braked hard to a stop, almost colliding with a tree trunk. “Out! Get out. They may be able to see the car from up there. It might show up through the trees.”
They moved twenty yards away from the four-by-four and hunkered down behind a low outcrop. The sound of the helicopter reverberated through the woodland and branches shed their loads of snow. A car went up the road just beyond the trees.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed. “It’s there again, look.” A dozen feet from them, the lynx sat and licked its lips nervously, watching them.
Al licked his lips too, for the same reason. “It’s quiet now. Shall we have a look around?” he almost whispered and the silence was suddenly shattered by a cross between a growl and an almighty scream. The lynx was on its hind feet and batting at something with its front paws, claws extended.
It looked down at the result. It shook its tawny fur; it looked at Al and Fizz and stalked stiffly away as though nothing had happened.
“Mon Dieu,” said a voice from the wreckage left by the cat.
The couple stood up and cautiously moved across.
“We know him,” said Al.
“We do,” agreed Fizz. “But I know him much better.”
The man groaned to a sitting position and looked at them. He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and Fizz snatched it from him. “Check if he’s got keys with him,” she told Al. “Car keys.”
Al did so, finding none. He found a gun though, a solid little Beretta which he held on to.
“Okay. Let’s find his car then; it’ll be up the road a bit. Can you hot-wire a car?”
“I can hot-wire anything.” Al said and gently smacked the badly bitten and heavily bleeding man with the heavy handgun. “Let him sleep it off, eh?”
They regained the road in silence, both of them thinking hard.
“You said you know him, Fizz? Did he call in that chopper on us?”
Fizz nodded. “I guess so; he’s the one who hired me through Sadik to get these people out of Eritrea. I recognized the voice, finally. He’s, um…I think his name is Mewael.”
“Been cleaning up, I guess, so neither you, nor anyone else could betray the people you brought out.”
“That’s about it, I think. I’ll have to warn the couriers who took them on from the airport. He might not be working alone. Ah, and there’s his car. I remember it from the Abbaye car park, dark gray and a white roof. God’s name, you say it tailed us all the way from the airport? Let’s go.”
“Oh, no. We’ll take his, leave ours, and wait until he comes round and uses yours to get away.”
“What good will that do?”
“If I’m right, quite a lot. If you and I are going to work together you’ll have to trust me.”
The keys were still in the ignition of the gray Isuzu. It started up without a problem. Al cut the engine and Fizz examined the cell.
“Look at this, Sadik’s number, mine. Even the text messages we used are still here. And some went to the damned ’copter.”
Behind them, among the trees, a powerful engine roared into life, drowning out the rattle of the helicopter above. Al started the other vehicle and they motored up the road that led towards the heights where snow lay like a thick blanket over the rocky skyline.
The helicopter circled, then straightened out. There was a flash of fire and a long streak of smoke, followed somewhere behind them by the sound of a grenade exploding. Two minutes later, it happened again—but this time, there was an eruption of dark, oily smoke above the trees. The aircraft swept into view, buzzed them, and did a little shimmy. Al gave a cheery wave and a thumbs-up out of the window as it vanished into the distance.
Back at the hotel, Al visited the checkout to settle the bill; the manager gave him a copy which he saw was stamped ‘paid’. He read the name Sadik, alongside of which rested a yellow emoticon, a smiley man. There was also a scrawled note paper-clipped to the bill:
Thought Sadik ought to know of your
help with our friend, Mewael.
He was quite interested.
Bye now, Fizz
He turned in time to see Fizz ordering her bags to be carried out. He smiled, knowing that if it had been left to him he would stay—but as busy as he was, Fizz was busier. She had told him she would contact him about future happenings and meetings at a later date. He threw her a kiss before leaving for the airport.
As Al flew home to the UK, he thought a lot about Fizz, but he worried more about his father. And how he could tell him about her? Aldo’s father was not college-educated. Back in his day, a boy left school at the earliest opportunity; his place was to help put food on the table, not to fill his head with useless knowledge. But Aldo recalled many of the useful tidbits that the older man had passed down to him—one of them could apply soon unless all of his plans worked out.
“If you ever have to go on the lam, son—from the police or villains—the first place they’ll look is where your family lives, and then where your friends are. So, find somewhere else. A new friend, an apartment; work away, even. It will give you a bolt-hole where they may not think to look.”
That had seemed logical and wise advice, and he’d taken it at face value. Al was full of ideas for making a living, but at the moment helping his father was the only thought on his mind. He had a scheme to do that but it needed money—lots and lots of money. It also required helpers, not like Santa’s little elves but young, fit people who would do anything for the sake of a challenge.