Very, Very Carefully
Section 20 had already contacted George Kenwright, and in turn, his staff had set up a meeting for Andy Walbreck to meet the go-between in a restaurant called Chicken Republic, no doubt because it was close enough to walk to, and hard to miss. Layla stayed behind to check the satellite feeds, and John contacted her by mobile as he strolled along under the cloudy afternoon sky.
"Everything all right so far?" he asked.
"You're a nice bright blob," she replied, and John grinned, then hung up and went inside. A table had been reserved for him under the name of Walbreck, but after he'd sat down, he scarcely had time to give the room a quick scan before a black woman in a very glamourous outfit slid into the chair across from him.
"Andrew Walbreck?" she asked.
John smiled broadly, giving her a much longer glance. "Andy, to my friends. And what do your friends call you?"
"Well, they don't call me Alexandra," she said, casually tossing out the code name as she gave him an equally long appraisal. The waiter gave them the menu and retreated, and the woman said, "All right, what have you got?"
John removed a memory stick from his pocket which the secretary had given him at the airport. "George Kenwright gives you his personal assurance that he will pay ARGON the money they have demanded. As a sign of good faith, he's put half of the first payment into an account that ARGON can access at any time. The other half is in an account in escrow – as soon as Alexandra Kehoe is free, it will be released."
"And does George Kenwright also give his personal assurance that he will continue to pay half of the total profits each day?" the go-between asked. "Because if the payments stop, ARGON will consider that an invitation to take more hostages, and to broadcast their treatment to the world."
"Everything's here on the film," John said, indicating the stick. "You can watch it for yourself."
The woman took the stick and placed it in her purse, then said, "You must be awfully certain. Do you even know what happened the other two times that Kenwright tried to negotiate?"
"I know," John said. "But trust me. I'm certain that Kenwright wants to stop the abuse of innocent people, especially Alexandra Kehoe."
"It's not me that you have to convince," the woman said, smiling coyly. "But I'll tell them that I think you're serious."
"Oh, I am," John said.
The go-between leaned suddenly forward, her smile turning seductive. "Well, now that the business part is over … how about a serious kiss for luck, then?"
John mirrored the smile and leaned forward as well. "How much luck were you thinking of?"
He felt her arms slide slowly and caressingly around his neck as they kissed until she finally drew back and said, "I think that might be enough … for now."
"Maybe we could get lucky again later," John suggested, demonstrably pulling off his fake wedding ring and tucking it into his shirt pocket. But the go-between merely smiled and sauntered out of the restaurant. From the window, John saw her get into a taxi that had been waiting the entire time, and when it had driven off, he stood up as well.
When he got back to their room, Layla gave him a sharp look and said, "You've got something on your face."
She reached for a tissue, but John ducked away, grabbed a piece of note paper, and wrote, Bug!
Layla read it, and when she glanced up, John indicated the back of his neck. Layla went around to check, flipping up the collar of his suit jacket.
"Tracker," she said. "Not a bug. Now come here."
She wiped the tissue across his mouth and looked down at the lipstick smear, then back up at him. John smiled and shrugged teasingly. "What can I say? I got lucky."
"Really," Layla said in a flat tone of disbelief. "You know, my cousin has a dog named Lucky. They had to treat him for mange a few weeks ago."
John's smile became more genuine in appreciation of her put-down, but then he got serious again. "Can you track this?"
"Not from here, but Section 20 might be able to," she said. After taking a closer look at the device, she sat down at the laptop. Eventually, however, she leaned back a little. "I've sent them the information; they'll do their best. Shall we eat first or just walk around until they come for you?"
"Eat first," John said. "I hate being kidnapped on an empty stomach."
Standing up from the laptop, Layla said, "Well then, put your wedding ring back on and let's go."
After the meal, they went out for a stroll away from the well-guarded hotel, stopping frequently to linger at anything that caught their eye. Eventually, John became aware of intense scrutiny, and gave Layla a silent signal. She fell behind and took off her shoe as though to shake out a stone, and the men took the opportunity to pounce. Something slammed into the back of John's head, making him stagger, and then two men caught him by the elbows. He was aware of them pulling his suit jacket down over his shoulders to help pin his arms, and one of them punched him in the eye as well. Acting thoroughly dazed, which wasn't very hard, John offered no resistance as they bundled him into the back of a van and sped off.
As John had expected, they scanned him for tracking devices, plucking away the one that had been planted under his collar. John lifted his head slightly to see what they did with it, but the other guard shoved the muzzle of his machine gun into John's cheek and growled, "Don't move! Keep your head down!"
John laid his head on the floor again, but scanned as much as he could see, anyway. The van had no back or side windows, and from where he was, he could barely catch a glimpse of the passenger seat in front, let alone the windscreen. They drove for what seemed to John to be about half an hour, stopping and starting and turning corners and blowing the horn, until at last they stopped for good and opened the back doors.
"Get up," the man said. John wrestled himself upright, yanking his suit jacket back up to its proper position so that he could use his arms again, and rubbed one hand through his hair as he got slowly out of the van. It was fully dark by now, but the lights around him showed that they had pulled up next to a large bungalow that just screamed wealth. He could even smell the chlorine of a private swimming pool. Unfortunately, the van had parked under a carport, and so Layla would not be able to see his glow-in-the-dark hair. Perhaps Section 20 had already hacked the tracker and were following him even now, but just in case, he pretended to steady himself by placing his hand flat against the roof of the van before the men pushed him inside.
They went through a large kitchen and dining area into a more casual living room with easy chairs, sofas, and a large-screen television. In one of the easy chairs sat a black man, old enough to have perfectly grey hair. On the table in front of him was an open laptop, and behind him was a third guard with a machine gun.
"Mr Walbreck," the man said. "We want an explanation."
"Explanation for what? I thought we had a deal," John protested, glancing around. Was this where they were keeping Alexandra? There was no sign of her, or the room with the whipping frame. She might be somewhere else altogether.
"So did we," the man replied. "But when we went to access the account, the one that you assured us would contain half of to-day's ransom money, we could not."
"Why not?" John asked.
"We were hoping you could tell us."
"I don't understand, there must be some mistake," John said, glancing around as though frightened that they were going to assault him at any moment. Both guards behind him had machine guns in their hands, lowered, but ready to be put into action instantaneously. Returning his gaze to the grey-haired man, John said, "Look, George Kenwright assured me personally that he's willing to pay!"
"Perhaps he lied to your face and is willing to sacrifice both you and Ms Kehoe for the profits," the man said.
"No, I don't believe that," John said, shaking his head. "Why would he do that, why go to all this trouble if that's what he had in mind, why not just ignore you? No, let's watch the film again, maybe, just maybe, someone made a mistake somewhere."
The grey-haired man turned to the laptop. The message from George Kenwright had been stopped close to the middle; he clicked the button to continue it, and they listened.
"Here," the grey-haired man said. "He's written the account number and the password on this paper. You can clearly see it. But when we try to access it –" he clicked on another window – "this happens."
The screen claimed that the password was incorrect.
"Let me listen to it again," John said. The grey-haired man rewound and John leaned closer as George Kenwright spoke his text, stumbling a little as he recited the numbers and letters of the account and the password. "Listen, do you hear that? He says six, eight, six, when it's actually six, six, eight."
They played it again, listening and comparing, and the grey-haired man said, "You might be right. We shall try it again."
He put the corrected version in, but got the same message.
"If he made one mistake, he might have made another," John suggested. Kenwright had played his part masterfully, and it was easy to add, "You know he's under a lot of stress. Let me call him and double-check the numbers."
The grey-haired man gave him a stern look. "Do you think we are fools, Mr Walbreck? Do you think to call him so that they can trace the call back here?"
"Then let me call my wife and she can call him," John said, but the grey-haired man remained firm.
"No," he said firmly. "We will give him the benefit of a doubt and send him a message through our go-between. But we will not give him too much benefit," the grey-haired man continued. "We will keep you as our hostage until this is cleared up. And—"
He stopped dramatically, then went on. "You will be part of the message. Strip!"
"No, wait, you have to trust me!" John protested, but the machine guns came up. He took off his suit jacket to oblige them and at the same time, he said, "You don't have to send him this kind of message! Believe me, George Kenwright really, really wants to do this!"
What had the men done with the tracker? Was it still in the van?
"And why should we believe you?" the grey-haired man was asking.
"I'll tell you something that nobody else knows!" John offered, letting the jacket fall to the floor. It wasn't hard to sound desperate, even though everything was going according to plan.
"And what would that be?"
"George Kenwright's right-hand man, Steve Barron, is in love with Alexandra Kehoe," John said quickly, no longer undressing as he launched into another cover story. "We're not just talking an affair, here, it's serious. He was away from Port Harcourt when Alexandra was kidnapped, and didn't find out until this morning. Now Barron is blackmailing Kenwright, threatening to take sensitive information about Kenwright Oil to the press, if Kenwright doesn't do everything in his power to get Alexandra back. Trust me! Kenwright would be more than ruined if this got out, and he's prepared to do anything – pay anything – to prevent it. Like I said earlier, Kenwright's under a lot of stress, and he probably just made a simple mistake in either the account number or the password."
The grey-haired man took a moment to consider, then finally said, "Well, that might be true. And as I said earlier, we are willing to give him some of the benefit of a doubt – but not too much. You had better pray that this situation is resolved within, shall we say, the next twelve hours, because if it is not, then we will keep you as a hostage in addition to Ms Kehoe, and treat you exactly the same as we treat her. Now strip!"
Oh, it would be resolved within twelve hours, all right, John thought, but he knew there was no point in starting his escape until he knew where they were keeping Alexandra, and how he could get her out. Acting more cowed than he felt, John stripped, and saw that the guards were pulling their masks on at the same time. When he was naked, one of the guards cuffed his wrists together behind his back, then they pushed him out of the living area and down a short hall. They entered a room, and the first thing he saw was the whipping frame.
"No!" John protested, only partly in character, refusing to walk any further. One of the guards clubbed him in the kidney with the butt of his gun, knocking him to his knees. Then they picked him up and forced him against the frame, one man holding him upright as the other snapped the manacles around his ankles. Next, they unlocked his wrists and forced his arms up, whacking him on the bony parts of his elbows or shoulders when he fought back.
"Twelve hours," John heard the grey-haired man say from behind him. "Twelve lashes."
He twisted his head around to see if the grey-haired man was the one who would swing the whip, but the lash came from the opposite direction.